Sunday, October 4, 2015

Francis and Families: 27th Sunday OT

I went to a funeral Friday to pray with a friend whose grandfather has died, and she said a few words about him. One thing that really stuck with me was when she spoke of her admiration of him, as a little girl and throughout life, the way he could work on things and tinker and fix them. She spoke of this as actually being a really important life lesson: that when things get broken, we fix them. We don’t just throw them away. And that lesson about material things carried over, she said, to their family, and it was an even more important lesson when it came to family relationships. When things get broken, we don’t throw them away. We fix them.

When Pope Francis came to our country, he had an impressive schedule. The White House, Congress, the United Nations. But when he spoke of the primary reason for his visit, it wasn’t those things. It was the family. And he originally scheduled his visit to attend the World Meeting of Families. The White House and Congress and United Nations were worth a side trip, but the Pope came to speak to families. He spent more time with them than anywhere else. And if you watch his speeches and homilies, it was there that he was most passionate and animated.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Stop, Calibrate, and Listen: 25th Sunday OT

It was the summer of 1990. I was between fifth and sixth grades, and spending the night at a friend’s house. He had the single. He was a pretty cool kid and seemed to have his finger on the pulse of that magical time when the new wave pop of the ’80s was still ringing in our ears and before all those Seattle bands took over and put everybody in a bad mood for half a decade. He explained most emphatically that “Ice Ice Baby” was the coolest thing to drop basically ever. It was the new hotness and everybody liked it. It was the soundtrack of the summer. He pressed ‘play.’ I said I loved it. It is possible that I used the words “totally rad.” We listened to it a whole bunch of times in a row. But I went home the next day with a dark and terrible secret: I did not like “Ice Ice Baby.”

Sunday, July 5, 2015

In the Same Boat: 14th Sunday OT.

I don’t suppose anyone else is nuts over Warren Miller ski films? Anyway, one of the lines he always worked in somewhere was “always remember you’re a unique individual… just like everybody else.”

Funny, and also wise in its way. That line comes to mind when I think about what makes us individually amazing, and what makes us the same. There are some things I want to tell everybody here, things I keep repeating, sermon after sermon, hoping it’ll get through to you, and hoping despite all evidence to the contrary that someday it might even get through to me.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Your turn. Ascension 2015

We’re getting ready for staff orientation at Ondessonk next week, so it’s been on my mind a lot, along with the ten thousand other things of course, but summer camp is a really special and demanding time for me. Camp’s about fun, but we also care deeply about outdoor education, the skills and character and faith that Camp is such an ideal place to teach. That kind of teaching isn’t finished once you’ve said it, or even once you’ve shown it. There’s that critical moment when the teacher steps back and says “okay, your turn.” At first the teacher might hover and be ready to jump in any moment, but even beyond that there’s yet another moment, when the teacher must allow real responsibility… and even failure.

I think that has quite a lot to do with the Ascension of Jesus. He taught what he had to teach, showed what he had to show, and now the time has come for him to step back and say, “okay your turn.” You can look at the way Jesus teaches his Apostles in the Gospels, and see what a master teacher he really was. Patient when he needed to be, demanding when he needed to be, teaching by word and example, and then letting them do it for themselves, giving them leadership and sending them out on initial missions… but now the time has come to really step back and turn it over to them, to allow them to have true responsibility, and yes, even to fail.

That’s the Church on Earth.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Seek the Living: Easter 2015

I make the same mistake about this time every year. I start thinking about Springtime and growing things, and I look at my disheveled eyesore of a front yard and think I’d better get to work on it. It starts with removing the old dead stuff. I have to pull out all the dead stuff so that new life has room to grow. How Lenten is that?

Well, back to my annual mistake. There are some plants that look really dead, by which I mean they look really really really dead. Like brittle and brown and crackly and half-rotted. They literally could not look more dead than they do. So I do the obvious thing and start breaking them off and throwing them away. And then, usually after I’ve ripped out most of it, I find a fresh green growth on the end of one of those dry, utterly-dead-looking stems. And I realize that all of that plant would have greened, if I’d given it the chance. I’d thought that nothing that dead could ever come to life again, but I was wrong.

It reminds me of a visit when I was young to Yellowstone National Park. There had been a devastating wildfire there that burnt almost a million acres down to black char on the ground. Looking out over that devastation was almost a physical weight, foothills and valleys stretching as far as you could see of char and ash. You could look far and wide and see nothing but death.

But far and wide isn’t the only way to look. Before getting back in the car to go somewhere less depressing, I happened to look more closely at what was right at my feet. Just the smallest little sapling, just starting to poke through the black and grey death. It was my own little version of Ezekiel’s vision: can these dry bones live? Can new life ever come from such utter destruction? Watch, Son of Man.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Bystander: Good Friday Portraits pt. 3

Jerusalem at Passover is indescribable. The whole kingdom of Judah descends on the city, which seems pretty big until the pilgrims start pouring in the gates. They just keep coming, and coming… and there we were among them, my sons and I. Rufus and Alexander had a long trip from our home in faraway Cyrene. Israel is nothing like Libya, but there on the south coast of the great sea is one of the places our people settled when we scattered. We are few at home, but here we are many. This week in Jerusalem my sons can see what they are part of, and truly participate in the story. The pilgrims come. The Lambs are chosen. The story of the Exodus is retold. The blood is poured out in the Passover sacrifice. And we remember that wherever we are, whatever may happen, whatever the Romans may say, the Lord our God has made us free.

When you pack the city with so many strangers from so many places, you’ve got a recipe for rumor, and the whole city buzzed with whispered stories about the Nazarene.  “I heard he can heal blindness, injury, sickness… just by prayer.” “They say he delivered a man from demons that all the Temple priests couldn’t cast out.” One man spoke quietly, seeming embarrassed by what he was saying but unable to hold it in, “I heard he can raise the dead.” But all these stories were just so many eddies in a larger current, swirling beneath the one great question that had seized the city: “Is the Messiah among us? Could he be the One?”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Thursday 2015

The idea is to follow Christ through these coming hours. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, culminating in the great Easter Vigil… the idea is to follow Christ.

These liturgies constantly invite us to enter in to the mysteries - not just to reflect on them, not just to remember, but to become participants. We are not here to be spectators. We are here to give living witness to the Paschal Mystery that defines our own lives, a summons to follow Christ. And when we talk about ‘following Christ,’ we mean that quite literally, to place our feet in His footsteps, to go where He goes, to choose as He has chosen. 

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, for Catholics, is not just a re-enactment; it is that, but so much more. We haven’t come here tonight to remember what happened in the Upper Room. We’ve come here because it’s going to happen again. Tonight, the words will be spoken, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, this is my Body.”  The voice that speaks these words will belong to a sinful and unworthy man, but they will not be my words, but Christ’s. And the same Eucharist that fed the Apostles will feed you tonight. He made this clear; He commanded it: “Do this in remembrance of me.” He established this Sacrament for His Church, this Real Presence for all time.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Work in Progress: 4th Sunday Lent

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners
587 B.C. The Temple was destroyed, the city laid waste, the people exiled to a foreign land. Preachers are always trying to find an analogy to communicate how devastating this was for Israel. Here’s my try: if ISIS succeeded in destroying every Catholic Church in the world, blew up most of our cities, annihilated every last vestige of our government, and if you survived but were forced to live the rest of your life in Syria, it was kind of like that…maybe. Anyway, it was a tragedy that couldn’t be overstated. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, it was the defining tragedy of the Old Testament. It occupies the attention of most of the Prophets and a big chunk of the historical books, even a Psalm or two: “by the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…how could I sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?… if I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.”

Anyone can write down what happened. It’s another thing entirely to say why. That’s what the Prophets do, and it’s what we find in 2 Chronicles 36. The Chronicler tells of Israel’s growing infidelity. He explains how God tried every correction, sent messengers, tried everything He could to set them back on course. It didn’t work. The cup of God’s wrath became full, and the Exile was the result.

It would be easy to imagine this wrath of God in terms of human emotion: we all know what it’s like to get fed up, even to lose our temper. That would be a mistake. God doesn’t do that; God’s wrath isn’t like that. But I can think of a human analog. When we were little Dad told us not to go too close to the water when we played outside. No other rule equaled this one - it was the first and greatest commandment. It was clear that the punishment for breaking this rule would come upon us with swiftness and severity that we'd never known.

This was wrath. And it was love. It was love that would have stopped at nothing to enforce the Law. Not because the Lawgiver was cruel and demanding, but because the Lawgiver had a broader perspective about  lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law.

When we read about God’s wrath in the Bible, that’s the way to understand it. The Lawgiver is working from a greater perspective, and a greater understanding of lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law. Like any good father, He will not punish only out of temper, or more severely than is necessary to impart the essential lesson. But like any good father, He will not abandon His children to darkness. He will not sit idly by as they set their feet on the road to ruin.

As the story continues, the plan of God comes forth in the form of an unexpected hero, the decidedly pagan Cyrus of Persia. The Temple is rebuilt, the nation restored. The awful exile was not punishment by an aggrieved tyrant, but healing by a loving father. It was hard medicine, but it was the right medicine. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but it was one more chapter in the story of how God so loved the world.

The Chronicler and the Prophets were given the grace to understand that. They could say not just what happened, but why. But sometimes we don’t understand. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes not understanding is itself part of the lesson we must learn.

We must be careful - very careful - in claiming the mantle of the Prophet. To say “I’m sick because God is punishing me” or “my friend lost his job because God wants him to have a different one” or “that driver pulled out in front of us because God arranged it” - that's something only the Holy Spirit can give. Careful! But what you do know, what you always know, is that God is working in your life.

You have to take that on faith. The exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon saw nothing but shattered dreams and lost loved ones and a great people reduced to the remnant of a remnant. They could hardly have known that theirs was the story of God redeeming a fallen world. In your moments of tears, and in your moments of joy, and in the moments where life seems to be just sort of happening as the days go uneventfully by… yours is the story of God redeeming a fallen world. God is working in your life. We can talk about how that might be happening, but I won’t tell you for sure; I don't have that particular gift of Prophecy. But it’s happening, believe it. Bet your whole heart on it. God is working in your life.

And what work is He doing? Well, there’s the question. Is He trying to make you wealthy? Comfortable? Is He trying to just barely squeak you into Heaven by the skin of your teeth? You know the answer. You know what God’s project for your life is. God is trying to make you a Saint. And He’s trying to use you to make other people Saints. That’s the project. You might wish God would settle for something less ambitious, but He can’t and He won’t. He loves you too much for that. Wake up tomorrow morning and face the day and remember: “God is going to spend today trying to make me a Saint.” Maybe nothing particularly extraordinary will happen. That’s because Saints find holiness mostly in not particularly extraordinary things. 

Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s ποίημα. The Greek can be translated ‘workmanship,’ like the King James and RSV, or ‘handiwork,’ like the NIV. I usually read the Jerusalem Bible translation, and I’d like to leave you with that one. Translation is not an exact business; there are always ambiguities. The Jerusalem Bible translates ποίημα just a bit differently, capturing a different but absolutely valid shade of its meaning. It says that you are God’s work of art.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Making a Scene: 3rd Sunday Lent

Part of the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage that we do is this big inventory thing where the couple answer a bunch of questions individually, it generates feedback, and then we get together and go over it. One of the statements, presented as sort of a True/False item, is: “I know everything there is to know about my partner.” You wouldn’t believe how many engaged people agree. Well, I’m not allowed to slap people, but…

Truth is, of course we never know someone else completely; another person is always a mystery. But we do this thing where we fill in the blanks. Right? To take the most extreme example: how many times have you seen a young person fall madly in love, not with a real person, but with the ideal soulmate they’ve projected on to someone? Come to think of it, people fall madly in hate the same way. Let me propose a True/False question to you. True or False: every relationship - friend, family, spouse - involves a tug between who they really are and who we’ve imagined them to be. Isn’t that true? And it might sound unfortunate, negative, phrased that way. But I don’t think it is. Let me put it another way: no matter how well you know someone, he or she can always surprise you. Once in a while you have one of those moments with someone you thought you knew pretty well, and all of a sudden he or she says or does something that makes you think “Who is this? Where did that come from? I thought I knew this guy!”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What God takes: 2nd Sunday Lent

I read a piece by a writer who was explaining why he could never be a Jew or a Christian.  Though he found certain elements of these religions really attractive, he pointed to Genesis 22 as a deal breaker. He wanted nothing to do with any God who would ask a father to sacrifice his son. He couldn’t believe in such a God and wouldn’t want to worship Him if he did.

It’s not so hard to sympathize. But I wished there was some way I could write to him and suggest that perhaps he didn’t read all the way to the end. Isn’t it more the point of the story that God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Especially if you know the context, that the Canaanite religions all around Abraham and his descendants did practice human sacrifice, as have many religions through history. But the God of Abraham lets it be known here on Mt. Moriah that this is not worship, this is not devotion, this is not what He wants. It’s not a story about God asking something horrible, but a promise that He doesn’t. 

Well and good, but why the cruel drama? Couldn’t God have just sort of told Abraham this important truth without such a wrenching and horrific demonstration? So maybe there’s something incredibly important here, and maybe God is teaching us more than just a prohibition on human sacrifice. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Fix the World: 1st Sunday Lent

The story of Noah and the Flood isn’t an easy one for us. How could it be, when its starting point is the sinfulness of the world? That’s where the story begins: God’s Creation has gone wrong.

Maybe the first lesson of the story is just to remind us of the seriousness of sin. You and I are used to the world having sin and disorder in it. But in the Biblical perspective, it’s tremendous and shattering beyond description. We think of big sins and little sins, and we tend to think of little sins as being no big deal really. That’s totally unbiblical. If only one venial sin had occurred in the history of mankind, that would be a monstrous, shattering thing. Because it means that God’s Creation is disordered, imperfect, and fallen. When I’ve recorded piano pieces, the moment I hit a wrong note I stop and begin again. There’s no way I’d want a recording to exist where I’m playing a wrong note. Why should we expect God to have lower standards for His Creation? There’s no comparison: I know that my performance is far from perfection no matter what I do, but a glaring mistake I still won’t allow to proceed. I’ll wipe the slate clean and start over. But God is perfect, infinite goodness and beauty and perfection itself. How do you think a wrong note looks to Him? How about slavery, murder, deceit, envy, greed?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015

Imagine, if you would, a professional baseball player… let’s say it’s Matt Holliday… He’s just had batting practice and he’s leaving the clubhouse. On the way out, two teammates get his attention. The first one says, “You know Matt, I’ve always thought there was something special about your swing, and I was watching you at batting practice and I think I’ve figured out what you’re doing that’s so right. Want to grab a bite and I’ll tell you what you do really well?” The next guy says, “Hey, Matt, I was watching you at B.P. and… hey man, you’re a fantastic ballplayer and I don’t mean to butt in, but I think I noticed a flaw in your swing. Want to grab dinner and talk about it?”

Which will he choose?


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Priest, Prophet, and King (pt 3 of 3)

I was looking for a particular piece of music on youtube a few weeks ago. I happened to find it in the context of the British royal wedding from a few years back. You remember, Kate and whats-his-name. I remember at the time it filled the news and everyone was talking about it for a while, to the extent that it got annoying and I made a point of ignoring it as completely as possible. And so it’s a little surprising to admit to you that watching the entrance procession… it captured me. The music (Holst) was spectacular. The pageantry and ceremony were tasteful and flawless. There was just beauty and elegance and dignity radiating out of everyone.


And then I thought about my niece Mia and her princess obsession. We really need to find her a twelve-step group or something. Maybe it’s not always literal princesses, because I think that word gets applied to basically any female Disney lead character. But they do tend to be princesses, don’t they?

Here’s what I’m saying: there is something in us that responds to the idea, and to the vision, of royalty. Even after having a revolution against the British Crown, would you say that we Americans really have less royalty in our culture? We traded George III for Elvis, Elizabeth II for Beyonce. And even still, when that British Crown family throws a wedding, look how many of us were fascinated.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Priest, Prophet, and King (pt 2 of 3)

We’re going to start with a pop quiz. Answer in your head. What’s a prophet? Seriously now, some of you aren’t thinking about it, you’re just waiting it out. Think about it. Do you know what it means to be a prophet?

Grade time. If you answered that a prophet is someone who predicts the future… I’m sorry, D+ is the best I can do. But don’t feel bad, that’s probably what most people would say if we took this question to the streets. Predicting the future is indeed one of the things that prophets sometimes do, but there’s so much more to it than that, so… D+.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Priest, Prophet, and King (pt 1 of 3) - Baptism of Jesus

If you find what happened at the Jordan River that day a bit mysterious, you’re in good company: John the Baptist was certainly confused at first. Why should I baptize you? Isn’t that backwards? If Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, why does Jesus need it? If it’s our entry into the Body of Christ, why would Christ himself need it?

The short answer is that He didn’t, of course. Like everything Christ did, it was out of love for humanity. He went down into the waters not to be sanctified, but to sanctify. Not to be saved, but to save. Baptism is the door through which we enter His Church; this is Jesus creating that door.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

And Christmas Comes Once More: Solemnity of Mary 2015

If you were around for Christmas, I promised you the "missing" verse of the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." It would have been the penultimate verse:

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where Misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where Charity stands watching,
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.