Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas 2016

The Christmas story will be read from pulpits today, performed on stages and screen, broadcast across the airwaves and read in quiet studies. It is only part of the story of Jesus, but it is the part that tells us how He came among us, and that makes it inexhaustibly fascinating and profound. It is a story about Who He is, and why He came, and how. I think I am safe in saying it is the best-known story in human history.

But the cast of characters is really pretty small! That’s one of the surprising things about this story: it is completely particular. We don’t tell the story of humanity receiving Jesus; we tell the story of two particular Jews - Joseph and Mary - receiving Jesus. We don’t tell the story of how whole civilizations have found Jesus; we tell the story of a few particular Shepherds who were nearby. We don’t talk about the Gentile nations coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah; we talk about just three particular wise men from the East. So in one sense, this is the biggest and grandest story ever told. But in another sense, everything about it is small. Not the halls of power and empire, but a stable behind a small-town inn. Not the remarkable historical figures and emperors, but the most ordinary shepherds and such. And that fits: because this is, after all, the story of how the Eternal Creator God, whom the universe could not contain, becomes small.
Giotto, Nativity

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sevenfold Grace: 28th Sunday OT

I knew a little girl who misunderstood ‘leper’ in church as ‘leopard.’ The Bible had lots of stories about leopards. I was kind of sad when the mistake was corrected; the Bible must have seemed a lot less interesting all of a sudden.

If you’ve studied the Bible and heard sermons about it very often, you’ve probably heard plenty about what a bad deal it was to be a leper. You were totally outcast, an object of fear and loathing, and ritually unclean unless and until you got better. Which you usually didn’t.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Easy Answers and Mustard Seeds: 27th Sunday OT

We learn not to trust easy answers, don’t we?

Or maybe it's built in, and we’re born that way. Even a small child, if she asks you a deep and difficult question, if you explain it away a little too easily - she'll give you that look that says “I’m not sure I’m buying this.”

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Going Wrong. (25OT 2016)

The best movie poster I’ve ever seen was for the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. It was very simple. You saw this little boy standing against a beige Tatooine desert background. His shadow fell on a wall behind him... and that shadow was in the unmistakable, chilling shape of Vader. That was the most compelling thing about the prequel story. We met this bright, innocent little kid who loved his Mom and was a mechanical whiz… how did he become Vader? How could any little boy become Vader? How did Anakin go so wrong? The next three movies answered that question.

(Never mind that they also left most of us wondering “how did George Lucas go so wrong?”)

Monday, September 12, 2016

Something Beautiful: Canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta

Her parents named her Agnes when she was born in 1910… her full name in Albanian, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. [Ahnyes Gonja Bo-yeah-jee-oo]. Without getting too deep into a history lesson, I don’t think it’s an accident that God raised up a great Saint from this place and time. She was born a subject of the Ottoman Empire, which fell when she was a girl, and after she left Albania would become Communist. Her homeland would have the sad distinction of proclaiming itself the world’s first officially Atheist state.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Unassuming: 21st Sunday OT 2016

For reasons you will easily understand, I read a book not long ago about dealing with merging and closing of parishes. It said a lot about grief and pain and conflict and reconciliation. Something started to feel a little bit ‘off,’ and it eventually dawned on me what it was: Jesus was barely mentioned. This book was written by a brother priest, and Jesus does come up from time to time — just not a lot. I think that the author probably assumes that Jesus is behind and beneath everything he’s saying, a constant foundation, the cornerstone the whole thing is built on. Even if he isn’t mentioned very often, Jesus isn’t some mantra you call up like name-dropping; He’s the background and the basis of everything. He’s an assumed presence that goes without saying.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call this the Big Assumption. I realized I’ve been guilty of it too. I’ve given sermons and counseling sessions that were about lots of things connected to Jesus, connected to discipleship, but just assumed that everybody knew it was all about Jesus and so I maybe didn’t really… you know… mention Him.

That assumption actually works sort of alright for many of you. You live out your relationship with Jesus daily and intentionally. You might not claim to be doing great at it, but it’s most definitely your goal. You know and could never forget that everything we do and say here about flows from the living presence of Jesus Christ, Who is someone we know and follow in a personal and intentional way. It’s obvious to you that everything — every bit of incense, every drop of holy water, every genuflection, every word and every action is about the worship of Jesus Christ, as someone we know and follow as disciples. You get that! But does that describe everyone in a Catholic pew, or a Catholic classroom, or a Catholic house? The Big Assumption is that it does. The Big Assumption: the moment you identify it and name it, you know the assumption is wrong.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Finish Line: 20th Sunday OT 2016

I’m a sucker for sports metaphors, but you have to be careful not to overdo them. But Hebrews 12 is arguably the best sports metaphor in the Bible, so we’re going to let it rip. It’s all about running, which I appreciate, because that’s the only form of athleticism I’ve made much progress with. It’s good for me because it doesn’t take a lot of coordination. You just have to not fall over, which I usually don’t, and not run into a pole, which I’ve only done like twice. I’d also claim that a footrace is the simplest and purest form of athletic competition there is: we’re going to start here and the first one to get to there, wins!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pointless: 18th Sunday OT 2016

“All is vanity.” So says Qoheleth… the narrator of our first reading who is traditionally identified as King Solomon himself, the wisest man on earth. Which makes the words all the more shocking. It sounds so bleak, so dismal. “It’s all in vain.” Wait… is that right? Do you agree?

The answer might be ‘sometimes.’ I think most people can relate to this kind of attitude. Chances are you’ve had moments and moods in which it all just seemed pointless. All the things that people run around trying to acquire and achieve, it’s just dust and shadows. Qoheleth puts it like this: “For so it is that a man who has labored wisely, skillfully and successfully must leave what is his own to someone who has not toiled for it at all. This, too, is vanity and great injustice; for what does he gain for all the toil and strain that he has undergone under the sun? What of all his laborious days, his cares of office, his restless nights? This, too, is vanity.” You know this mood. You’ve felt it before. There are times… maybe a brief moment, maybe a large part of your life, there are times when things really do feel pointless.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Praying Right: 17OT 2016

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Right? Excellence needs no argument or reason; it speaks for itself. It’s true that excellence can become an idol, a false god… but that’s true of all good things. If you’re going to spend some portion of your one precious life doing something, for heaven’s sake do it as well as you can. If you’re wise you know it matters little how your best compares to anybody else, but it matters much whether your effort is your best.

The Scoutmaster held up my whittling project; I’d asked if it was enough to finish the woodcarving merit badge. It was a little building, a tower: I meant it to look like a skyscraper, roughly carved out of some 2x2 pine. He looked it over and then looked me in the eye and asked, “Steven, is this your best, is this as good as you could make it?” I said it was. He said, “then you’re done.” I learned some interesting things about whittling, but I learned a lot more from the seriousness and earnestness with which he asked that question. I don’t think about that moment often, really, but I think in some ways that question has never left me. “Is this your best?” If it is, then you’re done.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Father We Have: 12th Sunday OT 2016

I had a long conversation the other day with a young lady, 14 years of age, a kid who lives far from here and spent the week at camp. The outlines of her story as a Catholic are depressingly familiar and devastatingly common: baptized, confirmed, not taken to Mass much otherwise, never really met Jesus Christ, never really believed much. But she loved coming to Camp and every summer, while there and for a few weeks afterward, she feels close to God and inclined to believe. She said she’d become convinced that she should draw closer to God, closer to the Church, because if there could be somewhere so beautiful with people so kind - if that kind of goodness could exist - there simply must be something behind it.

That, by the way, is why Camp exists, and though it certainly doesn’t have that effect on everyone, it’s pretty great to see it work so beautifully for someone.

Then the conversation took a sad turn as she talked about going home. She dreaded going home. When a kid says she's afraid to go home, that triggers certain responses, but even aside from that it's one of the saddest things you can hear come out of the mouth of a child. She had a panic attack two nights ago. It isn't a physically violent thing. She talked about how she doesn’t feel important, doesn’t feel accepted or like she really matters. She feels like just a constant disappointment.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Sin of David and the Son of David: 11th Sunday OT 2016


King David might be the most vivid character in all the Old Testament. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel follow him from boyhood to death, and we really get to know the man. As you read his story, David will thrill you, inspire you, let you down, make good again... he has laugh-out-loud hilarious moments and he has facepalm what-is-he-doing moments. And in the part of the story we catch today, he has had a moment of total moral collapse.

It’s one of those moments when the icy, sickening grip of pure evil seems to have taken hold finally and irrevocably. Biblical characters are real people, so they don’t fit into neat categories of “good-guys” who do no wrong and “bad-guys” who 100% rotten. Still, there comes a time when the sum of a someone’s actions have placed him or her pretty squarely on the side of wickedness. It can happen little by little or it can happen pretty suddenly. It has happened to David.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fresh Heart: 6th Sunday Easter 2016

“By the love you have for one another, everyone will know you are my disciples.”

That’s a nice motto for a t-shirt or a bumper sticker, but it also happens to be an incredible challenge for us as Church. How often do people look at you, and see so much love, they immediately think “that is definitely a Christian.” And today, I think we might even have to take the question a step backward: is that even what people expect from Christians today? 

It’s His one commandment, the law and the prophets all fulfilled, the Gospel in a word: to love. And the first question is: what does He mean by love? You’ve heard me preach that sermon before and you will again. Bottom line for now: Jesus isn’t talking about an emotion. He’s talking about willing the good of the other. Which might feel very nice, emotionally. But sometimes it feels like crucifixion. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter 2016

Christ is risen! The tradition in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches is a greeting and response. “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed!” It’s a liturgical formula, like ‘the Lord be with you’/‘and with your spirit.’ But it’s also the center point of Christian faith. On Good Friday we stay awhile at the foot of the Cross, and it is right that we should do so. But even that we only do because we know the ending. If that were the end of Jesus, we would not venerate His Cross. We would not wear crosses around our necks and hang them on our walls. We wouldn’t have a religion at all! St. Paul said it bluntly and honestly: if Christ isn’t risen, then all the rest of it is junk, or, in his words, ‘we are the people most to be pitied on earth.’


But you know what? Christ is risen!

My invitation to you is to set that fact right at the center of your life. Whatever you worry about in life, whatever hurt you bear… I’m not going to stand here and tell you to just get over it. That would be to ignore Good Friday, and we don't do that. But if you put the Risen Christ at the center of your life, you’ll have hope. And you’ll have perspective. Whatever comes, God’s going to work it out. Maybe not the way you expected. Maybe not the way you asked. Maybe not on this side of death. But He will. The Resurrection means it’s never too late, and it’s never hopeless. It’s the story of a man who was saved three days after the nick of time.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday 2016

A little language diversion? We usually call this ‘Holy Thursday,’ but you might occasionally hear the term ‘Maundy Thursday,’ especially in Britain. That comes from the Latin ‘mandatum,’ which means ‘mandate’ or ‘commandment.’ And what is the mandate Jesus gives us on Maundy Thursday? 

“You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example, so that as I have done to you, you should also do.”
Duccio di Buoninsegna: Washing of Feet, detail.


This day is one of those days that packs so many meanings, you have to choose something to focus on in the sermon. It’s about the ordained priesthood. It’s about the gift of the Eucharist. It’s about the Agony in the Garden. It’s about the betrayal of Judas. All of these aspects are essential to Holy Thursday. If you like to think musically, it’s as though the whole year introduces different motifs and variations. Now we are arriving at the finale, and all the motifs return, weaving together, leading up to the climax of Easter Morn.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Caught: 5th Sunday Lent 2016

Here’s a little hint for reading the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of John: when the time of day is mentioned, there’s often a symbolic weight to that. It’s easy to pass over such a detail, but when things are happening in the dark of night, or under the noonday glare, or at breaking dawn or falling dusk, usually you can find meaning there.

This story happens in the Temple early in the morning, at daybreak. Think for a second about daybreak, that time when the sun rises and casts a bright light on the decisions you made in the dark of night. The things that seemed like a good idea at the time… or, if not exactly a good idea, at least relatively harmless. Or, if not harmless, at least easy to get away with. Or, if not easy to get away with, something you simply need. Or, if not something you really truly need, something you want badly enough that you decide to give yourself a pass this once. Adam and Eve reached out to grab the forbidden. We all have. And like Adam and Eve, we talked ourselves into it, or allowed ourselves to be talked into it. "The Commandment is arbitrary and repressive," says the serpent, "and God is kind of a jerk for insisting on it. It’s just a stupid rule, and why should you follow it?"

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Road Watcher: 4th Sunday Lent, 2016

The Father saw him coming a long way off… which means he was watching. How many times a day, for how many months, did he look out over the road, straining his eyes… is that someone coming? Is it him?

How many times was he disappointed?… no, it’s not him. It’s not the one whose place is empty at the table, it’s not his lost son. But still he watched. He looked out over the empty road, hoping that this day he might come home.