Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years: Christmas 2014

Christmas, 1865: A 33-year old Episcopalian minister rides through Palestine on horseback. Phillip Brooks is the man’s name, and he and his companions set out after dinner to visit the town of Bethlehem. They ride to the field where legend has it the shepherds saw the star. Around the town, they see shepherds still keeping watch over their flocks in those same fields. The pilgrims eventually make their way to the Church of the Nativity. At ten o’clock the liturgy begins, and it doesn’t end until three in the morning.

It’s no surprise that the experience will stay with Brooks. Three years later as Christmas approaches again, Brooks is now rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He approaches his friend Lewis Redner, the church’s organist. Much like happens here and in churches all over, a Sunday-school children’s Christmas program is being prepared. Brooks explains that he’s written a little carol for the program, and asks Redner to see if he can put it to a tune. Redner will have some difficulties with that. The week before the program he’ll confess to Brooks that he hasn’t really gotten anywhere. And actually he’s been more focused on his Sunday-school lesson anyway.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Your Lord and Savior: Christ the King

An Evangelical Baptist friend and I once had a fairly long argument about being saved by “receiving Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” That was his phrase, and I’m sure it’s very familiar to you. And he was saying that’s all there is to it, and I was saying no it isn’t! Eventually I pulled out my trump card for this argument. To anyone who thinks that if you say some prayer one time, nothing after that matters when it comes to salvation, I could choose from dozens of contrary Scriptures, but my favorite is this one from Matthew 25. You can’t read this and not know that our actions, our works, have something to do with our salvation.

In this case, though, my friend was unfazed by my Biblical trump card. He said, “Well, of course. Accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior isn’t just something you say. It’s what you do that determines whether He’s your Lord. His Lordship has to make a difference in your life, or it’s just an empty word.” Um… oh. I was surprised and definitely humbled to discover, so far into our conversation, that I’d totally misunderstood what my friend had been saying. Once we cleared up my bad assumption, we couldn’t really find any real disagreement between us. Knowing us, we probably started arguing about Mary instead!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Not for the Faint of Heart: 33rd Sunday OT


When you make an investment, you’re concerned with balancing the chance of coming out ahead against the risk of losing. You might think first of brokers and bankers, but farmers make exactly these decisions continually… actually everybody makes decisions about risk and reward, and not only about money. With no magical crystal ball, we just have to think through the potential upside and downside, and make our best estimation, and hope for success. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Worth Living.

So here’s the thing: I want to address a conversation that’s been happening recently about the ending of life and what choices are valid to avoid suffering. And we just heard 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, which couldn’t be a better text for that: “Don’t you realize,” Paul asks, “That you are God’s Temple, and that the Spirit of God dwells within you? If anyone destroys the Temple of God, God will destroy him, for the Temple of God is holy, and that Temple you are.” So that’s our topic, and the thing is it’s a very tough one to preach. For one, it’s intensely personal and intensely painful for some of us. For another, we have all ages here and I never want to short-circuit parents’ decisions about when certain topics are broached. But silence doesn’t seem like an option so I’m going to try it. If I fail in either of those respects, I ask two things of you: forgiveness, and feedback.

All I really want to say this morning is that human life is sacred. That idea is something we might be tempted to take for granted, but the truth is we can’t, not anymore. I’m very sorry to say that people who describe themselves as Christians are already divided on this point. But if anything or anyone is going to salvage the idea of the sanctity of life, and salvage our civilization along with it, Christians are going to have to be at least a big part of that. Hopefully we’ll find many allies.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Two Cheers for Civility: 29th Sunday OT

Many volumes have been written about this simple phrase of our Lord’s. It’s a critical moment of teaching for Christians when it comes to figuring out our relationship to the ruling authority — what we would call the government. We live in a system very different from that of Jesus and his disciples, at least in theory, but the question of what belongs to Caesar is still a live one.

In our country, it’s often been especially live for Catholics. The first European types to come here and settle were Catholics, but the dominant influence ended up being English and northern European Protestantism. Only one signer of the Declaration of Independence was a Catholic, and it’s a little surprising that there’s even one given

how much anti-Catholicism was around. It wasn’t just mindless prejudice, but rather a serious doubt that one could be both a good Catholic and a good American. Catholics, it was thought, have an allegiance to the Church and particularly to the Pope that makes it impossible for them to be true Americans. Public schools routinely taught anti-Catholicism along with basic reading and math, one of the reasons such a strong parochial school system developed here. Oregon actually outlawed Catholic schools in 1922, but was overturned by the Supreme Court. When Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for President, it was rumored that the Pope was planning to move to the USA if Smith won so he could keep closer tabs on his new property. As you know we did eventually get President Kennedy, the first and only Catholic President, and one important step to winning that election was consistently promising that no, he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Catholic hierarchy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Who Desires Entry? 28th Sunday OT

Just to keep everyone sane, lets start by admitting that this story is bonkers. If we try to explain away the madness of it, smooth over the rough edges, water down the intensity, we’ll probably go crazy and we’ll definitely miss the point. No, let’s give Jesus the benefit of the doubt and assume that he told a bonkers story because he wanted to. What is he teaching us? Why is he using this sledgehammer of a story to teach it?

Let’s actually begin with the first reading from Isaiah, which will give us a running start at Christ’s parable. Isaiah is writing about God’s holy mountain, where every tear is wiped away, where there is no more hurt or conflict, where a rich feast is set before us to enjoy in perfect bliss. Isaiah uses this very earthly imagery to help us imagine the fulfillment of our hearts truest desires, the kind of fulfillment that leaves behind no restlessness, no regret, no anxiety, nothing but happiness. How do you imagine that? Maybe it’s a little differently than Isaiah. One little guy told me he though Heaven was an endless field of mud and him on a dirt bike. I think that’s great. As long as we remember that all our images fall short.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Vineyard Trilogy: 27th Sunday OT

This makes three consecutive Sundays of Jesus telling parables about vineyards. Two weeks ago it was the owner who hired people throughout the day, and paid the latecomers the full wage just like the early risers. Last week it was the two sons he asked to work in his vineyard, the first of whom said “no” but changed his mind and went, and the second who said “yes” but didn’t come through. And now this, making it a trilogy of vineyard parables, all from Matthew 20 and 21.

Seems like something you should have noticed, doesn’t it? Don’t feel bad, it took me a while and I’m the one writing the darn sermons. Next time these come around the three-year cycle, I think I should plan on taking the whole month to do on-location research at Blue Sky and Russell Hill and Walker’s Bluff and Pomona Winery. Because good preaching is just that important.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Actions Speak Louder: 26th Sunday OT

This is one of my favorites of Jesus’ parables. Some of the parables are obscure and hard to understand; this isn’t one of those. What we say is one thing, what we do is another, and what counts most is what we do.

That first son, who said ‘no’ but eventually did his father’s will, we’ll forgive his initial reaction. He came around, he did the right thing. He said the wrong thing, but he did the right thing. That other son, who said, “oh sure, absolutely” and then acted against his word... that’s not the sort of person you want to be.

I suppose there’s some attraction to the fantasy that salvation is simply a matter of saying the right thing. “I’m a Christian.” “I believe in Jesus Christ.” “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” But Jesus isn’t Lord of your life just because you say so. He’s Lord of your life because of what you do. Christianity isn’t a club you join that issues a ticket to heaven with membership. Christianity is a way of life. Even before our religion was called Christianity, it was called “the Way.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ready But Not Rushed: 25th Sunday OT

I remember the first time I spoke to someone who was looking forward to dying. It was bracing, surprising. I was maybe twenty-one years old, and it was a shock to hear someone talk about her life as something she would really just as soon let go of. She wasn’t ungrateful for her life and she wasn’t being a coward or giving up. It was just that everything she really cared about was waiting on the other side. That’s what did it: it was the goodbyes. So many goodbyes.

Picture yourself in a room, maybe picture it as a party of some kind, one room in which is gathered every single person who matters to you. Your spouse is there if you’re married, your parents are there, your siblings, cousins, children… there’s your kindergarten teacher, and that coworker you never hung out with but bonded with at work… your teammates, and all the friends from all the different seasons of your life. And as the evening wears on, one by one, they begin to slip into the next room. Just a few at first, but the movement picks up momentum until the room you’re in starts to feel quiet and empty. Eventually so few are left, and you’re so tired, that you spend most of your time thinking back and reminiscing about earlier in the evening when the room was packed and noisy and raucous. You’ve heard rumors about what’s in that next room, but you don’t really know with any clear idea. You just know you’ve watched most of the people you care about go through the door. The party’s been fun, you’re grateful for it. The fewer people still around you are nice, you’re grateful for them. But you’re ready to go through that door.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Image of the Wound: Exaltation of the Cross

When I was little my favorite story was the Exodus, I mean the whole tale from the rise of Moses to the Promised Land. It definitely had the most exciting pictures and descriptions in my illustrated book of Bible stories: crossing the Red Sea, facing down Pharaoh, Mount Sinai, manna from Heaven, and more.

It’s still one of my favorites. The story of the Exodus is an absolutely defining moment for Jewish people and the way they understand who they are and where they’ve come from. But for us, too, all that significance didn’t just evaporate with the coming of the Christ. If anything, it comes even more into its own.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sharpening Each Other: 23rd Sunday OT

Jesus says that whenever two or three gather in His name, He’s with them. I think we’re meant to understand that larger groups work too; He’s emphasizing that even if it’s only two or three, He’ll be present. What’s a little surprising about this is that He does seem to be excluding a group of one.

Is Jesus not present with you if you’re alone? That sounds preposterous; of course He is. But why does He say He’ll be present whenever two or three gather? I think we’d have to agree that Jesus is always with us, regardless of what other company we’re in. But I think we’d also have to agree that there’s a way Jesus is among us when we’re in community that He just isn’t when we’re solitary. To put it another way, there’s a big part of a relationship with Jesus Christ that you simply can’t have without other people. Trying to do Christianity in solitude is like trying to play baseball in solitude: throwing the ball and planning to outrun it to take a swing, and then outrun it again with a catcher’s mitt if you whiff. If you can do that, maybe you’ve got a shot at doing Christianity alone too.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Getting Behind Him: 22nd Sunday OT

Last week we heard a foundational text from Matthew 16, one of those that every Christian should know. Peter has his greatest moment in the Gospels: his confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Christ praises this faith and exclaims, “blessed are you, Simon, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father!” And he names him Peter, the Rock, entrusts him with the keys of the kingdom, and promises that the Church built on this Rock will never fail.

This week we’re simply continuing the same passage, and it’s important to know that context. Because in the next breath after his great triumph, Peter hears his Lord say this to him: “Get behind me, Satan; you are thinking not as God does but as men do.” How did Peter earn this startling rebuke?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Without Fail: 21st Sunday OT

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That’s how I’d sum up the first reading, which begins with somebody called Shebna losing his job. “I dismiss you from your office; I remove you from your post,” says the Lord. I wonder if Shebna may be the only person to be personally fired by God. At least it came from the top. God is replacing him with someone called Eliakim. “I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open, none shall close, should he close, none shall open.” Sounds good, but the very next verse after our reading stopped prophesies that Eliakim will also end badly. Promising start, bad end. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


But the early Church Fathers recognized in these words a foreshadowing of an authority that would be good and true, never abused, always faithful: the authority of Jesus.

Before I was accepted into the seminary, I underwent some pretty intense psychological probing. Most of the report was pretty dull and obvious, but I remember it said I had a bit of a “problem with authority.” I thought, “who doesn’t?”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rabbi and the Pagan: 20th Sunday OT

I had a teacher in seminary once who lamented with disgust that he’d never once in all his life heard a sermon about racism. Well, I don’t think I have either. But you know, I’ve never heard a sermon against murder either. Some things you sort of take for granted, I guess. I’d feel condescending and insulting if I stood here explaining to all of you people that racism is bad.

But if we get behind racism a little bit, I think we’ll find that the basic problem with it, the bigger picture of which racism is a part, is something every one of us deals with. And it’s something that all three of our readings tackle directly: the question of who’s in and who’s out. Who counts. Who’s one of ‘us.’

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Priceless: 18th Sunday OT

You learn pretty early on that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. When something claims to be free, look for the catch, and chances are you’ll find it. You probably get as much mail as I do claiming that there’s some great deal inside, completely free, just waiting to be accepted. Putting that on an envelope is the best way to ensure I won’t even open it. Straight to the trash!


It’s not that it never happens, but it’s rare enough that we become suspicious. A few weeks ago on a Friday night I was in St. Louis for a wedding and had four absolutely primo tickets to the Muny. Really great seats. My friends and I couldn’t use them so we went way to the back of the free section, found a party of four, asked if they’d be interested in sitting way up there, and handed them over. I’m not sure they even said “thanks.” If they did, it was mumbled and got lost in the very confused and even suspicious look they were giving us. I walked happy, knowing they’d get the picture eventually.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

One Thing: 17th Sunday OT

I’d like to talk today about integrity. Integrity has to do with wholeness, oneness, harmony. If you like, it’s about consistency. We usually talk about integrity in the sense of moral integrity, which is whether someone’s actions are in harmony with some kind of moral code. If we say someone has integrity, we mean that this person lives out a moral code consistently. It may even be a moral code we don’t entirely share; we might still honor the integrity of the person who sticks to that code. You might say, “I think she made the wrong decision, but I admire her integrity.” Being a hypocrite is a failure of integrity. Being corrupt is a failure of integrity. Going back on your word without adequate reason is a failure of integrity. All these things damage our moral wholeness. All of them involve us in some disconnect within our character. It doesn’t all line up. It’s in disharmony.

I think we’d all agree that integrity is a top-shelf character trait that a person should strive for. It’s one of the things that define a person’s character and quality. You might imagine someone saying “she’s a great person but she does have a short temper” or “he’s a great person but he really struggles with gossip.” You won’t ever hear anyone say “she’s a great person but has no integrity.” See what I mean?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wheat and Weeds: 16th Sunday OT

There’s a scene in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which, if not the greatest film ever made, has got to be a contender, in which our heroes Bill and Ted stand before St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. To gain entrance, Peter asks them “What is the meaning of life?”

After a brief private conference, Bill opens his arms and says most philosophically, “Every rose has its thorn, just like every night has its dawn, just like every cowboy sings a sad, sad, song…every rose has its thorn.” Peter is more or less satisfied, not seeming to realize that they’re just quoting a Poison song from 1988. And yes, I do like Miley’s cover and don’t care who knows it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Getting Through? 15th Sunday OT

Matthew 13 in an invitation to consider whether God is getting through to you.

His simple story of the sower catalogues some of the things that can go wrong. If the seed doesn’t grow, why? Grace and beauty and truth are all around us. What keeps them from getting through?


Consider the hard ground on the pathway. We can be hard, and we can be hard in such a way that God can’t get through to us. Some of us begin to think of being hard as a virtue, but it’s a mistake to confuse hardness with strength. Shutting people out is done out of weakness and fear. It’s what you do when you can’t cope otherwise, and people can become very hard when they’ve been hurt too often, or frustrated too long, and the defenses have become impenetrable. Human connections become an unacceptable risk, and the pain and risk are walled off. So are beauty and love, but that’s a price you’re willing to pay. It’s probably not a decision you made; it just sort of happened over time. Now you feel cut off from people, from everything. In a strange way you even feel cut off from yourself. That seems strange: how could you be cut off from yourself? The answer is that your truest self is in God, in love, and you’ve built a wall to keep it away. Anyway, it worked. Now nothing gets through. And by the time you realize that’s a problem, it’s hard to see how to fix it. Can it even be fixed? Yes, but not without feeling some of that pain you’ve been avoiding. Hard things don’t break gently, they shatter. But it’s worth it, because the pain to which you become vulnerable when you tear down that wall is nothing compared to the good that can finally get through to you.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Flesh and Spirit: 14th Sunday Ordinary Time

“Your interests are not in the flesh, but in the spiritual, since God has made his home in you.” That’s Romans 8:9, and I wish it were true. But sadly, this verse has the form of an instruction, an ideal - something we’re trying to make true. It’s the way disciples of Jesus should live. Paul is blunt in explaining that it makes no sense for a disciple of Jesus to mix up spiritual life with its opposite. If God is dwelling in us, there’s no room for anything contrary to Him. Paul reminds us that the Spirit that lives within us… that’s the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead! The power at work within your soul is nothing less than that same Spirit! Do you think that’s going to make a difference in your life?

Paul sets up a simple distinction: the spiritual versus the flesh. We have to be careful with this language because it easily can be, and often has been, misunderstood. Does it mean that the flesh, our material bodies, the whole material world, are wicked? Many Christians and many others have believed that. You can see that idea at work when people seem to be suspicious of anything pleasurable. Anything physical and pleasurable must somehow be dirty. If you pay attention you’ll start noticing this everywhere. Something being pleasurable and something being wicked or sinful are used as synonyms. I always notice it on dessert menus. “Our creme brûlée is sinfully delicious.” “Layers of decadent chocolate.” “Wickedly indulgent custard.” 
So be a good Christian and drink lousy coffee?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Humility of God: Corpus Christi

The Eucharist is the most central activity of Catholic life. The importance, the value, the significance of the Eucharist can never be adequately described. Whatever praise and gratitude we direct to the Eucharist can only fall short, because the Eucharist is God Himself present among us, and loving us. Love is the gift of oneself, and here we have God giving Himself perfectly and entirely. Of all the libraries full of books that have been written about the Eucharist, I’ll just grab one aspect to focus on, and consider briefly the humility of God.

I don’t know about you, but that phrase sounds a little odd to me: “the humility of God.” Which probably shows how far I have to go in Christian life. Humility is a virtue we praise in others when it pleases us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t underestimate it by a couple million miles.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Image of the Three-Personed God: Trinity Sunday

The Church takes this Sunday to focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, which is God’s revelation of Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons in one God. We call this the most basic doctrine of Christianity. What could be more fundamental, more important, than our teaching about Who God Is? 

Here’s the flip side, though: strangely, this first layer of revelation, this foundation of our whole religion, is one that we talk about little and understand less. Many Christians have never heard anything about the Trinity more helpful than a sort of shrugging “eh, it’s a mystery.” Well if that’s as far as we can go with it, why did God bother to reveal Himself in the first place? Or even worse, they’ve heard it explained as a paradox, a contradiction. Like “Well you’re supposed to believe that God is one and also three, and that doesn’t really make any sense, but that’s why you need faith.” Please understand this: that isn’t faith. Faith isn’t believing something for no good reason. Faith isn’t deciding to set aside Reason and believe something that can’t be believed without turning off your brain. And a Christian mystery isn’t something that makes no sense. It’s something that makes sense of everything else.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Church! Pentecost 2014

Happy Birthday, Church.

If you think about it, there are other occasions that we could very well pick as the “birth of the Church.” Like when Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, we could say that a community gathered to pray in Jesus’ name is the Church, so that’s where it began. Or Holy Thursday, when he washed their feet and instituted the Eucharist: we could very well say that those comprise the essence of our mission and identity, and that the Church was born that day. Or all the way back to the Annunciation, when the Word became Flesh, because the Church is the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ began to exist in Mary’s womb that day. But instead of any of these very good choices, the Church claims as her birthday this day: Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension 2014

Every time I start to say something about the Ascension, I stop myself and think, “no, that’s not right, you can’t say that.” For instance, I might start to speak of the Ascension as the day that “Jesus went away.” But that’s not right; Jesus isn’t gone. How about “the day Jesus returned to Heaven.” That makes it sound like the Second Person of the Trinity had been temporarily absent from Heaven, so… no. Or I might start to talk about “the end of Jesus’ life on Earth,” and that’s not right either. Then I get a light bulb and start to blurt out “the end of Jesus’ physical presence among us.” But for Catholics, believing in the Eucharistic Presence, that’s wrong too.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Receiving the Spirit: 6th Sunday Easter

The Acts of the Apostles gives us a totally fascinating glimpse into the first days of the Church, from the Ascension, to Pentecost, to the incredible missionary travels of St. Paul. This is how we started! It’s interesting for two reasons. One is simple curiosity; it’s like finding a super-old family photo album. But there’s an even more important reason, which is that we want to know that we’re part of the same thing. That historical connection is vital to Christianity, because Christianity is a historical religion. It isn’t just a philosophy or technique. Everything depends on whether Jesus really rose, and whether He really founded One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, and whether that Church exists today, and whether we’re in it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Serving Him in the Tangle: 5th Sunday Easter

The Apostle Thomas speaks three times in the Gospels. Most famously, in the episode after the Resurrection when he is unable to believe until he sees the Lord and says, “My Lord and my God.” He also has what I think is the most heroic speech of any Apostle before the Resurrection, when Jesus insists on going to probable death in Jerusalem and Thomas tells the others, “Then let us go die with him.” Today we’ve heard the only other time he speaks in the Gospels. Three doesn’t sound like many times, but it’s more than most of the Twelve. This time, it’s a brief but profound interchange between Thomas and the Lord.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Nothing I Shall Want: 4th Sunday Easter

One pastor told the story of when he asked a group of people who could recite the entire 23rd Psalm. A few hands went up, but he was a little skeptical of the hand belonging to a four-year-old. He gave her a shot at it, though. She recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd. That’s all I want,” and proudly sat down.

I think that first line is a big part of why this psalm is among the most popular passages in the Bible. It’s really a stunning sort of statement, when you think about it, and that’s what makes it so compelling. And if you really do think about it, it’s incredibly challenging too. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Right on, he sure is. Nifty. “There is nothing I shall want.” Woah, hoss. You serious?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Recognizing the Lord: 3rd Sunday Easter

One of the most exciting, most fascinating, and most mysterious parts of the Bible for me is the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension. And it really is kind of mysterious. I mean, the stuff that happens before Christ’s death and Resurrection you can pretty well picture; you’ve never seen anyone walk on water but you can imagine it easily enough. And the time after the Ascension, well, that’s where we live. We know what that’s like. But that time in between, when Jesus is appearing to the disciples, those stories read very mysteriously. Even the Gospel writers seem to be sort of at a loss to put it into words for us. “He appeared in their midst, though the door was locked.” You know he went from being absent to being present, but there’s nothing there you can picture, really.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

New Saints! New Saints! 2nd Sunday Easter

A year and a half ago the Catholic Church received her newest Saints. Among them were two Americans: Sr. Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha. The new parish encompassing Gallatin County came into being that very same day. So we get to say that our parish is named for one of the Church’s newest batch of Saints. But we can only say that for a few more hours. Sunday morning in Rome - the middle of Saturday night here - Pope Francis will canonize two more Saints, and our new newest Saints will be Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. And he’s chosen the Feast of Divine Mercy to do it. That wasn’t an accident.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sort of the Only Thing That Matters: Easter 2014

Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed!

We have done our worst. He’s seen the very worst we are capable of, from brutal violence, deceit, betrayal, mockery, right down to the sheer indifference and apathy that makes it all possible… because we did them all to Him. In reading the Passion twice this week, in praying the Stations of the Cross all through Lent, in the liturgy of Good Friday, we allow all this to soak in. We take time to remember the darkness, to force ourselves to face the horror of what happened that Friday afternoon. And we do this… why? To wallow in guilt? No. We do this because the victory of Easter flows out of it. Easter is only Easter because of Good Friday.
See, this isn’t about the kind of victory that just gains some ground, or rights some wrongs, or makes things a little better somehow. What was conquered on Easter Morn? Good Friday is the answer to that question. Here’s the bottom line, here’s what it all boils down to: things got as bad as they could possibly get, we sinned as outrageously as ever we could sin, darkness covered everything and hope flickered out in the face of darkness, evil and darkness and death had their moment of total victory, and it’s okay. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Out of Nowhere: Good Friday Portraits pt. 2

My spear gave him the last of the five wounds. Well, many more than five; there were the thorns in his scalp, cuts from the scourging, bruises from the rods. You’ve seen it depicted on film or in print, I suspect, in varying degrees of brutality. It’s all speculation, of course. For now, just believe the Gospel accounts, the eyewitnesses: the man was badly hurt. It’s not why I joined the Legion. It’s not what I had in mind the first time I put on the armor and the colors and swelled with pride. But out here, out on the fringe of the empire, it’s part of the job. So, yes, we got very good at hurting people. 

We were very good at hurting people in such a way that no one who witnessed it would ever step out of line. You don’t hold together an empire this big by showing mercy. I can show you a man who talked of a kingdom built on mercy. He’s hanging on that Cross. That’s his mother at the foot of the Cross in so much pain that you’re not even strong enough to look at her. That’s his best friend with her. Where are the rest of his friends? They’re nowhere. Gone. Fled. Except the one who gave him over into our hands, who’s dead by his own hand. That’s one especially treacherous, and one especially loyal, but ten out of twelve not hot or cold, just… well, like I said: they’re nowhere.

I was here, not out of compassion, not out of antagonism, just doing my job. I didn’t give it much thought. I put a lot of effort into not giving it much thought. You have to do that, you have to dissociate yourself, if you’re going to plunge a spear into the heart of a man you neither hate nor fear. Remind yourself that this is your job: make sure he’s dead. Tell yourself he probably is, and if he isn’t you’re doing him a favor. And it was that simple, in a way. 


Thursday, April 17, 2014

If You Knew You Were Going to Die Tomorrow: Holy Thursday 2014

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you wouldn’t want to be alone. Nor would you want to be in just any old crowd. There would be a very special, very particular list of people you wanted around for your last night. You’d gather them together. Whatever else you did that night, you’d probably have supper together. Your last supper. That meal, and the conversation that accompanied it, would be a meal unlike any other in your life. For the people who shared it with you, it would be a vivid memory seared into their minds forever.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Heal My Sight: 4th Sunday Lent

Just a thought experiment. Imagine you got all the people you know in a room (it’s a big room) and divided them in half according to how happy they are. More happy people over on the right, less happy people on the left. What makes them different?

So for example, would you look at the dividing line and realize that all the people on the left had faced more hardship and challenge than all the people on the right? Is that what makes them different? Would the happier half be the half who hadn’t seen as much suffering? If you start thinking through the people you know, I think you’ll find that isn’t the case at all.

What makes people happy is obviously a fairly ambitious question; so let me get straight to the rather simple point I’m trying to make here. If you did our little experiment in your head, would it be true to say that the happier half of people tend to look at things differently than the less happy half? You bet.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Letting Trust Die: 1st Sunday of Lent

Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance after the Bathsheba and Uriah incident. It’s probably the best-known prayer of repentance in the Bible, the words of a man who realizes that his life has not turned out the way he hoped it would, that he isn’t the man he thought he was, he isn’t the “pretty alright guy more or less” that he’d told himself he was. It’s the prayer of a man who has blown through any possibility of denial and is face to face with every bit of the horror and ugliness of sin.

This moment of sorrow and tears is a great one for David, the moment when things stop spiraling downward and begin to turn, the moment of repentance. He realizes that what he wants most of all is the opposite of what he’s been pursuing. What he wants most of all is a pure heart, a faithful spirit, and the innocent joy of the presence of God.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On the Highest Hill: 8th Sunday OT

I took a brief but thrilling architecture class, and I remember the professor on the very first day posing us a question: What do our buildings say about us? If you walked into an ancient Greek city, what would you know about the people who lived there? You’d see a great amphitheater and know that community and the life of the mind and the arts were very important to them. You’d see a well-organized market square and know that commerce was well-developed and important to them. You’d see athletic fields and gymnasia; their presence would tell you that physical health and sport were important to them, and their relative location and beauty would tell you that they were somewhat less important perhaps than the life of the mind. What about religion? Where are the temple or temples? Look up there... way up there at the highest point of the city. You know from miles away what matters most to these people. Growing up here, it would have been reinforced a hundred or a thousand times a day, subtly and subconsciously, that religion is what’s most important.

Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze

Sunday, February 16, 2014

If You Wish, You Can Keep the Commandments: 6th Sunday OT

I love the Book of Sirach and I love the way this first reading begins with powerful, blunt words. “If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power.” Well, so much for our excuses. Just like that, God’s Word demands we accept responsibility for every breach of God’s law. We don’t get to excuse ourselves saying things like “I’m only human,” or “everyone makes mistakes.” Those things are both true and they are both irrelevant. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. If you don’t keep the commandments, it isn’t because you had a rough childhood or because the man is keeping you down or because nobody understands how hard it is for you. If you don’t keep the commandments, it’s because you do not wish to. Does that sound harsh and judgmental of your neighbor? But we’re not talking about your neighbor. We’re talking about you. And you know it’s true. I know my excuses are lame, and I know that you know that your excuses are lame. No neighbor-judging here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oh the Irony: 5th Sunday OT

It’s an oft-told story; I’ve told it before and will tell it again, but it’s a good one. Years back, The Times of London sent an inquiry to various famous authors and intellectuals, inviting submissions on a simple question. Their question was, “What’s wrong with the world?”  I assume some of their respondents wrote at some length, but the answer still remembered was a very brief one: “Dear Sir, I am.  Yours, G.K. Chesterton." A great Catholic answer from a great Catholic thinker.

On one hand, we can say that Chesterton’s answer is certainly incomplete. There’s far more wrong with the world than any one man, even one as large as he. But he won because he declined to externalize a problem that he was involved in. He took responsibility. I think it also shows that Chesterton had taken to heart our Lord’s words in the Gospel: “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Taking Sin Away: 2nd Sunday OT

Just to clear something up right off the bat, the following is a list of sins that, if you’ve committed them, you shouldn’t be here:

[end of list]

There are, of course, no entries on that list. That’s the sort of thing that gets said a lot, the sort of thing everyone should know. But for many of those most wounded, most haunted by sins of the past, it can be difficult to believe. In my experience, in pastoral counseling and in the confessional, there is no sin of which this is more true than abortion.

If you’ve had an abortion, or cooperated with one, or paid for one, or driven somebody to get one, or failed to speak up when someone was considering one, or pressured someone to get one… I won’t stand here and tell you it’s not a big deal because you know better. You know better than anyone. And that isn’t my job anyway. My job is to preach the forgiveness of sins. All of them.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Nunc Dimittis: Epiphany

Here we are at Epiphany, and the last of the four original Christmas carols. The Canticle of Simeon is in Luke 2:29-32, and occurs when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to present him to the Lord. This is sort of like the Christening ceremony done in some churches. In the Law of Moses that Jesus’ family followed, the firstborn son is presented to the Lord and a sacrifice is offered. So they go to Jerusalem to the Temple. That’s where we meet Simeon.

Here’s what we know about Simeon, Luke 2:25-26: He was “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Anointed.”

And that day has come. Their are two scenes in the Bible that always make me wish I was a painter. The first is the fall of Uriah the Hittite. The second is this very moment. I picture Simeon in the foreground, but turned away, barely visible as an old man in a dimly lit Temple colonnade. He is looking up toward an open door, with a beam of light streaming through the door almost to his feet. Silhouetted in that door are a man and a woman holding a baby. And Simeon knows.

This is what he says.

“Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace.
Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation 
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Magnificat: Solemnity of Mary

Our third installment in the series of "Four Original Christmas Carols" takes us to the scene of the Annunciation, Mary having just received some bracing news. After Gabriel had spoken, this is what Mary said, or more likely sang (Lk 1:46-55):
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.