Sunday, May 3, 2015

Being Homesick at Home--Homily for this Weekend

“I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

Today we have the privilege as a community to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  Now, it is true, that baptisms are wonderful moments in the life of our community, in the life of the family who is involved, and especially for the person receiving baptism.  But it’s also a bit strange, if we think about it.  In a few minutes, we will embrace this child, Benedict, as a community.  A child that is quite cute and precious like all children are.  And we will admit something quite strange and countercultural:  that actually, excuse me Andrew and Julia, despite how precious your child is, there is something about him that is a bit flawed.  What I mean, is that somewhere underneath all the cuteness of who Benedict is, there exists that presence of original sin that will one day make him do the things he does not want to do: question his faith, turn his back on you, choose the wrong door, and wrestle with questions of life inside of him, and perhaps even struggle with the reality of God. 

But he will not be any different from any of us sitting here.  For it is the same condition that sadly faces us all.  If we are in the least bit reflective, we know, that something inside of us just isn’t quite right.  There is a pull inside of us to do the things we don’t want to do.  However, recognizing original sin and its consequences should not be a moment of panic or despair for any of us.  In fact, I would propose, in good company, that it can be a moment for us to rejoice.  Because it is, paradoxically in many ways, the reality of this sin that warrants and invites us to long for something so much more:  for a deeper relationship with the Vine, with Jesus, in whom we can all bear much fruit.

It was reflecting on the reality of the fallenness of the world and of his own fallen humanity that G.K. Chesterton, a 20th century theologian, actually, quite surprisingly, found tremendous joy.  In his own experience of conversion, documented in his book entitled Orthodoxy, Chesterton, commented on his own feelings of being out of place in this world.  He wrote:

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place [in this world], and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence [to the philosopher’s advice].  But I heard [from Christianity] that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. I now knew why I could feel homesick at home.”

In Benedict’s baptism, there is something admitted by all of us who are here today that has roots in the one to which he is named after, St. Benedict:  there is always going to be a tension for us who live in this world.  This is a tension between, on the one hand, belonging to the world and enjoying and transforming what it offers to us. And, on the other hand, the knowledge that what can be offered to us in this world is not the entire story.  That we are called into a relationship with a loving God that transforms every moment of every day of every action that we experience:  it is a relationship that brings eternity into our existence of time.

I think this is what Jesus is trying to explain to us all today in the Gospel.  It is true that we can accomplish a lot of things apart from explicit recognition of God, and still experience some kind of joy in life.  There still remains enough goodness in nature that allows even the most avid atheist to love in some manner.  The beauty of the flowers will still be beautiful.  The taste of an ice-cold Trippel will still satisfy our thirst.  The smell of grass can still awaken our senses.  We can still hope to find love among the people around us.  But all of this can be placed in the scales and found wanting:  for it cannot compare to our experience of life when we are in a relationship with Jesus.

In him, the flowers become even more beautiful.  In him, beer is filled with even more flavor.  In him, the smell of grass goes from being something earthly to heavenly.  And in him, our love is transformed from merely human efforts to being something almost divine. 

Today, Benedict will receive the forgiveness of original sin, he will enter the door to the sacred, he will become ontologically changed, he will be joined to people both living and dead in the one Body of Christ, he will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that will remain with him in both the brightest and darkest moments of his life, he will be given charisms that only time will begin to show how magnificent they are.

But above all, I think, he will be brought into a relationship with a community that will sustain him for the rest of his life, and a savoir whose love has no competitors, whose sacrifice ended all sacrifice, whose intimacy transcends all intimacy, and whose life was given so that all of us, including Benedict, can now be called children of God.

In the earnest desire of his parents, with the basic elements of water and oil, with the utterance of human words, another life is united with the Vine that it may bear much fruit, both now, and for eternity.    

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Inclusivity and Exclusivity of Christ

         It is painful to be excluded.  Being involved in youth ministry over the years I often had a heart for the kids that did not quite seem to fit in.  They were the last to be picked for an activity, they often did not have a partner when our program called for it, and they sometimes found themselves awkwardly alone.    The situation was even sadder when I would find out that people were being excluded because of the exclusivity of the group.  For arbitrary reasons, kids were deciding that others should be left out.  And so they were.

         Lest we think we are much better though, we all know that in society arbitrary exclusivity has wreaked havoc on many lives:  women were excluded from voting, blacks were excluded from being fully human, and Jews were excluded from being human at all.  And in the Church we have not been much better at times; we all know what it can be like to go to a new community week after week and never be acknowledged by anyone.  Worse, many people feel that in the Church they simply cannot find a home:  whether because of their past, their family, or because they have been hurt.   

Now all of these kinds of exclusivity are an abomination and need to be overcome at all times, especially by people of faith.  If we are to be an evangelizing community it is our job to be hospitable, especially keeping an eye out for those people who seem to be excluded by false notions of exclusivity, those people on the margins of society.    

         With this being said, I think it is important to mention the other side of the coin:  I think that perhaps in our efforts to overcome exclusivity, we—meaning modern society—have taken inclusivity too far, and this has been detrimental to our faith.  So priests give homilies in order to not offend anyone, people place aside parts of the Tradition in order to make others a bit more comfortable, and theologians even work their best to prune the particularity, the exclusivity of Christ, so that he becomes just one more good historical person, but certainly not a savior, and certainly not God.

Yet I believe this is truly detrimental to our faith.  For as we see in the scriptures today:  our faith is grounded exclusively on the exclusivity of Jesus being the Christ, and it is the uniqueness, the inimitability, the exceptionality and the particularity of Jesus that allows us to truly be a inclusive community.   We can only be loving, we can only be hospitable, we can only be inclusive, because of who Jesus is. 

And so who is this Jesus?  In the first reading, we see that he is the one who offers healing.  When the crowds were amazed at the healing of the crippled man, Peter had one answer for them that should be the same answer we speak today:  It was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, whom God raised from the dead:  in his name this man stands before you healed.   And healing comes from no other place, even today.  When we are sick and are plagued with problems and struggling to survive and filled with horrors and our soul is bogged down:  It is in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean where we can be healed.  It is in no other name.  And it is because we have been healed, in body and soul, that we can extend that healing to others, to love the sinner, recognize the goodness in others, welcome the stranger, and be the inclusive community that we are called to be.

But who else is our savior?  In the second reading today we see that he is the one through which we can all be called God’s children.  Lest we forget the reality of sin, that once we were all far off, that once we rejected, over and over again the hand in covenant that God has given us, that once God became man in order to unite us with himself once and for all—and we rejected him.  Lest we forget that even though rejected that same God-man took to the cross, died and rose again to set us free and unite us once again with the Father.  No other person, deity, god, idol, religion, system, philosophy can offer us this:  It is in Jesus Christ that we can now be called children of God.  It is in no other name.  And being children of God means that we are all connected, that we are all drawn together into one family as the People of God: and therefore the exclusive adoption that comes exclusively through Christ is what constitutes us as an inclusive family, as brothers and sisters. 

But who else is our savior?  In the Gospel we see that he is the Good Shepherd.  Like that ancient icon painted on a wall in the dark dungeons of the catacombs in Rome, Christ has from the beginning been our Good Shepherd.  When each of us is that ‘one sheep’ who goes astray he leaves the 99 in order to seek us out.  When we are un-deserving of his mercy and stink with the filth of sheep he sets out in search of our souls. When we run from him to carry out our own will, when we think we are autonomously constituted, when we move onto the wrong path and follow the broad way, he is there with his crook and his staff to bring us back to his embrace.  And he alone is the good shepherd, for he alone had the ability to lay down his life freely for his sheep, and he alone had the freedom to raise it up again.  It was in him and only him that we who were once far off were brought back to his love.  And it is only because of him, that we too can search for lost sheep to bring them home to God’s inclusive love.

It is true that there can be elements of truth in goodness outside the visible structures of the Church.  Yet they are derived from only one source.  It is only in the exclusivity of Jesus as the Christ, the savior, that truth, goodness and beauty are once again made available to the world.  So when asked by skeptics and hopeful secularists and zealous haters of religion how it is possible for all of humanity to be gathered together in one inclusive family, hopefully we have the courage to say as Peter did:

There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.  Only in Jesus can we be saved.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Relationships are Tough: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

Let’s be honest here:  relationships are tough.  We are born into families without our choosing, and we are called to be in familial relationships with people who sometimes, well, we feel like we could just punch them out. 

We make friends.  If we are lucky we make one or two good ones.  And these are people who really, really know us. But these relationships take a lot of work.  Even when we feel we know someone, and there seems to be no strings attached, we can still get hurt.   But most often the pain is worth it.

And for some of us we marry or join a religious community.  There are amazing moments where it seems like everything is perfect.  And there are moments where we sometimes wonder how we got into these relationships in the first place. 

For most priests the experience of the first few years of priesthood is an education in how complicated and difficult relationships are for people—for themselves included.  Tears are shed, people are let down, and yet we still continue to move towards others, for it is how we have been created.  We have been created to be with others. 

The readings we encounter today show us that we have a God who knows how hard relationships can be for us—just how hard it is for us to love other people. 

Since the time of the Fall God has been working to guide his people into right relationships:  not only with him, but also with each other.  He gave us the Ten Commandments, as we see in the first reading, as an expression of love to help us discern how we are supposed to act in relationships.  How we are to love God; and how we are to love each other. 

And yet it is still so tough.  Even though we know the way to act, we still can’t seem to get it right.  Oftentimes, it is not the short-term relationships that are the most difficult.  It is the relationships where we are invested: the relationships where we are committed for the long term. 

In my experience getting to know married couples from all around the world, there always seems to be two different kinds of couples.  Now both clearly have their issues.  They have problems.  They have had moments of darkness.  They had moments where they could not stand the other person.  They love as best as they can.  But their relationships still pick up baggage along the way.  The difference, though, between the two types of couples was almost always this:  some are able to work towards healing, shedding the baggage that has accumulated along the way; and some are not.  Those that work through the healing have their relationships purified and strengthened, and have a deep, abiding love that mirrors God’s own love for us.  Those who do not drift further and further apart, until the bitterness and discord have simply become too much. 

I think this is part of what happened between the Israelites and God.  The relationship God continued to try to renew with his people had just become too filled with hardship, discord, and problems.  Because of the actions of Israelites, there was too much baggage.  So Jesus had to come to purify this relationship—to create it anew.

In the Gospel today we see Jesus doing exactly what he was sent to do: he is purifying the relationship between Israel and their God.  In a forceful, zealous and even crazy way he is driving the impurities and the struggles and the hardships and the pain away from the from their relationship, by cleansing the temple, to bring about something new.  He is helping Israel to get rid of its baggage, and to see that something new could be offered through him:  that no matter what had taken place between God and his people, the relationship could still be healed and purified. 

We are in the midst of the Lenten season.  One of our Lenten traditions is to be purified, to drive out those things that we have accumulated that negatively affect our relationships:  not only in our relationship with God, but in our relationship with others.   Lent is about clearing out the obstacles, confronting the pain, healing the hurts, making something new out of something that perhaps has become old, tired, and in need of life. 

And so I invite then, each of us here today, to consider doing the following two things.  It will not be easy by any means.  It will be painful.  But just as God from almost the beginning of time has called us to be reconciled to him and each other, he still invites us to do the same today. 

First, I want to speak to all of us here who are sons or daughters:  this should include us all.  We all have different experiences with our parents.  Some wonderful.  Some not so much.  Some people’s experiences have probably been more painful than others.  But I would invite us to consider the following:  find sometime during Lent to repair the relationships with your parents.  For some this might just be simply saying we are sorry for something that we have done to hurt them.  For others, it might mean something much, much more.  Perhaps offering forgiveness for being hurt. For some this might be nearly impossible. In the end, it might just be saying a prayer for them.   But if we are able, during this Lent, to find a small way to heal this relationship—then purity might be brought into our lives.

Second, I want to speak to the married couples here.  I of course don’t know first hand what it means to be married.  I don’t claim to know the joys and the struggles.  I don’t claim to have many answers at all. But I have had the chance to work with couples in many different stages of life. And I would like to make just one suggestion.  Either before this Lent is over or sometime as soon as possible for you all to do this one thing. 

Find a way to get away from the kids.  Whether you can make it an entire evening away, or just one long afternoon.  Go somewhere where it can be just you and your spouse.  Turn off the phones.  Turn off the TV.  Turn off the computers.  Then sit together, close, and hold each other’s hands.   Look into each other’s eyes.  Then taking turns, one of you say just a few ways in which over the last year you have been hurt by your spouse.  It is not about making your spouse feel guilty or bad.  It is not about winning.  It is about being honest. As the one speaks the other just listens:  no defense, no rebuttal; just listen.  When your spouse is finished, then if you are able, simply apologize.  Say you are sorry.  Then allow the other person to do the same.

When you have finished take the opportunity to purify your marital love in the perfect way that God has given you to purify that love. 

We all know that relationships are tough.  Loving is tough.  However, we have a God of reconciliation.  We have a God who purifies us, and purifies our relationships.  We have a God with the words of everlasting life.