"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.1:27)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blog Has Moved

This blog, including all past posts, may now be found at http://imageandlikeness.org.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bishop Dowling and Church Trends

Bishop Dowling form South Africa reflects thoughtfully and insightfully on current trends in the Church.  I think he'd make a good pope!  Here's just one paragraph to give a sense of his perspective:

"The rise of conservative groups and organisations in the Church over the past 40 years and more, which attract significant numbers of adherents, has led to a phenomenon which I find difficult to deal with, viz. an inward looking Church, fearful of if not antagonistic towards a secularist world with its concomitant danger of relativism especially in terms of truth and morality – frequently referred to by Pope Benedict XVI; a Church which gives an impression of “retreating behind the wagons”, and relying on a strong central authority to ensure unity through uniformity in belief and praxis in the face of such dangers. The fear is that without such supervision and control, and that if any freedom in decision-making is allowed, even in less important matters, this will open the door to division and a breakdown in the unity of the Church."

... and ...

"What we should have, in my view, is a Church where the leadership recognises and empowers decision-making at the appropriate levels in the local Church; where local leadership listens to and discerns with the people of God of that area what “the Spirit is saying to the Church” and then articulates that as a consensus of the believing, praying, serving community. It needs faith in God and trust in the people of God to take what may seem to some or many as a risk. The Church could be enriched as a result through a diversity which truly integrates socio-cultural values and insights into a living and developing faith, together with a discernment of how such diversity can promote unity in the Church – and not, therefore, require uniformity to be truly authentic."

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 3/4, 2010)

Dignity NoVA/DC

1 Is 66:10-14c; Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; Gal 6:14-18; Lk 10:1-12, 17-20

Before I get to the heart of what I want to say, let me make one comment about the reference Jesus makes at the end of this passage from Luke – a comment that perhaps might be of help if ever you find yourself in a “discussion” – and hopefully it will be a “discussion” and not an “argument” – with someone who is claiming that “the Bible itself condemns gay people.”  As many of us know, there are just a small handful of passages from the Bible that many people have used to condemn God’s gay and lesbian children – passages that we generally consider to be incorrectly taken out of their historical and cultural context, and thus misunderstood and misinterpreted – and one of them has to do with Sodom. This perhaps is the most well-known, the most notorious, because the word “Sodom” (which comes from the Hebrew word for “burnt”) found its way into English with the ill-defined words of “sodomy” and “sodomite.” You recall the story from the Book of Genesis in which two divine messengers come to the town of Sodom and are greeted by Lot. As was so important a custom in that part of the world, Lot extended a welcome to these strangers, offering them that life-giving hospitality without which travelers in the harsh terrain could perish.  Hospitality also placed a responsibility on the shoulders of the one who extended it; and that responsibility was to protect those to whom shelter and welcome were given.  Now, for unstated reasons, the citizens of Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand that he bring out these strangers so that they might abuse, probably rape them. And so the debate has been – is this passage about homosexuality, or is the true sin of the people of Sodom the fact that they turned their backs on the custom of hospitality and the responsibilities that come with welcoming the stranger?

So if you do find yourself in that discussion, you can and should point to this passage from Luke.  Because here, in the words of Jesus, we have a reference to Sodom, that city which God destroyed.  In making this reference, is Jesus speaking about sexual behavior? Clearly not. Jesus is making a reference, an allusion that was probably well-understood by his hearers, simply by naming the town. That reference, that allusion, is in the context of the lack of welcome, the lack of hospitality that his disciples might receive as they go about their mission of preaching in those towns and villages that Jesus intends to visit. And so, Luke chapter 9 supports the claim that the real sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sexual behavior, but was their lack of hospitality and caring for those in need.

So … moving on… we have this weekend a collection of readings that don’t necessarily have a common thread or theme that jumps out at us.  In fact, these three passages have a wealth of ideas that we can reflect on, but the one thing I would like to draw our attention to is what Jesus instructs these 72 disciples – going out in pairs – to do when they enter a village or a town.  He tells them that they are to: 
  • head directly to their destination without being side-tracked along the way;
  • accept hospitality in whatever way it is given;
  • cure the sick and tell them that God’s Reign is at hand
  • but … their very first words are an offering of Peace.  “Into whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this household.' If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.”

Much of Luke’s Gospel is focused on Jesus’ “going up to Jerusalem,” and this story from the 9th chapter of Luke is set n that context.  In the previous chapter – chapter 8 – Luke tells us that the time had come for Jesus to be taken up, to be “lifted up,” Jesus decides it’s time for him to go up to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus knows he will suffer and die, where he will be lifted up on the cross. And so, it’s in this context that we have this story of Jesus sending out the 72 … the context of going up to Jerusalem -- in Hebrew, Yerushaláyim – the city whose very name means, “the abode of Peace,” or the “the dwelling place of peace.”

Earlier this week I was listening to bits and pieces of the testimony before the Senate about the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. After her own testimony and questioning, the Senate Committee listened to various panelists presenting their views, people who both support her nomination and who those who oppose it. As I listened to the testimony of one particular person – someone who heads an organization with roots in conservative Christianity and whose stated mission is “Defending Family, Faith and Freedom,” – he was making the argument that he believes the nominee is anti-military and opposed to veterans and military service. In saying this, he said something that I found very striking. “War is the most difficult human activity, bar none.” When I heard that, I was puzzled, and I thought – Really? Is that really true? Is war the most difficult of all human activity? Now, I don’t mean to dismiss or overlook the countless sacrifices made and burdens borne by the hundreds of thousands of men and women – and their families – men and women in years past and even in our present day who have stepped forward to – as the saying goes – “stand in harm’s way” so that we might enjoy the blessings, the liberties and freedoms that we celebrate as a nation this weekend.  War is, no doubt a very difficult and even a terrible thing.  But when we look at the whole span of human history, we humans have been pretty good at fighting war.  And so when I heard that statement – “War is the most difficult human activity, bar none,” … my immediate reaction was to ask, “What about peace?” It struck me that if we look at this from the perspective in which “success” or “failure” is a measure of difficulty, isn’t Peace a more difficult human activity? Isn’t it more difficult to follow the command of Jesus to be bearers of peace, to be sources of peace, to be instruments of peace?

Many of us will remember a time when the collective voice of the Bishops in our country had a weight that, for various reasons, seemed stronger than it does today. It was 27 years ago, in 1983, that the Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on War and Peace entitled, The Challenge of Peace:  God’s Promise and Our Response. And while this pastoral letter reflected the time in our nation’s history in which it was written – a time in which its focus was not so much on the type of wars being fought today, but rather focused on the possibility of nuclear war and issues surrounding nuclear deterrence – the guiding principles articulated in that letter are still worth remembering.  If you’ve never read this document, I encourage you to do so. It’s not light summer beach reading, but rather is a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of war, of peace, and what we as Christians can and must do to further advance that Reign of God which, while still close at hand, sometimes seems so very far away.

Let me close by reading one brief passage in which the Bishops remind us of some core values and perspectives:  “At the center of the Church's teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God's presence in the world; all of the Church's work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God's creative work and the meaning of Christ's redemptive ministry..” [emphases added].

“The transcendence of God and the dignity of every human person.” As we observe the 234th anniversary of that day in which our forebears declared to the world that “All people are created equal,” let us pray that we will never forget that “All” means “All” and that as followers of Jesus who suffered, died and conquered death so that we might have peace and the fullness of life, that we also have what it takes to engage every day in that most difficult of human activities, bar none … the activity of being instruments of God’s peace every moment of our lives.

Neil Diamond's "Hello again, hello"

Not sure if this is what Neil had in mind ... but I like it!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Live in Virginia? Eat at home tonight!

The Washington Post reports that today is the first day a new law goes into effect in Virginia. Effective July 1, 2010, carriers of concealed weapons will be able to go into establishments that serve alcohol -- that is, as long as they have a valid permit and, more importantly, they don't drink!

Former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine wisely vetoed previous efforts to make this legal.  His successor, however, apparently had fewer qualms about the reasonableness of such a ban. Enacted earlier this year, the legislation signed by Governor Bob McDonnell takes effect today. 

The Post reports that, "About 300 gun rights supporters plan to celebrate Thursday night by visiting restaurants that serve alcohol while carrying their weapons." While I had no plans to cross the state line from DC into Virginia today, one wonders if simply "visiting" these establishments will satisfy their desire to "celebrate," or if a few might be tempted to raise a glass and toast their new-found right? And besides -- if the weapon is "concealed," how will a waiter or bartender know if they're packing heat?  Is it the establishment's responsibility not to serve such folks if they see an unusually large bulge where you wouldn't expect to see one, or is this law enforced by the honor system?

I think I'll stay home.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Following the Good Shepherd's Example

Fr. Joe Palacios, who teaches sociology at Georgetown University and whom many of us know, is quoted in an online article from Religion Dispatches about immigration reform proposals and the rights of same-sex couples.

In addition to referencing Fr. Joe's advocacy work, the story also quotes Sr. Jeannine Grammick speaking very clearly about the opposition of US Bishops to "Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)—which would close a loophole that currently prevents US citizens in same-sex, committed relationships from sponsoring their undocumented partners for citizenship." Says Grammick, "I find their arguments specious and I think their stand, personally I find it scandalous.”

What is most heartwarming, however, is the reference to two Catholic women who seem to have found a Catholic parish and pastor that welcome them and accept them -- and their family -- as they are.

Fr. Piers M. Lahey is the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd Roman Catholic parish in Pacifica, California. Fr. Lahey lived up to the name of his parish when he went out on a limb and wrote a letter to U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein in supporting her efforts to seek legislation that would provide individual relief to one of his parishioners, Shirley Constantino Tan. Tan and her partner of 24 years are active members at Good Shepherd, but she was subject to deportation after her appeals for asylum were denied. Fr. Lahey wrote that Tan and partner Jaylynn Mercado are “wonderful Christian partners, parents, role models for their two boys, and, as Scripture says, ‘living stones’ helping to form and build up the Church, the Body of Christ, in today’s broken and violent world.”

God bless Fr. Lahey for following the example of the One True Shepherd.  His example of supporting those entrusted to his pastoral care speaks volumes when viewed next to those who claim the title of "shepherd," but whose actions seem less than shepherd-like.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Texas Republicans & "Birthright Citizenship"

I try my best not to use sweeping generalizations or to speak about huge groups of people as if they all held the same world view or acted in the same way.  I cringe when I hear someone begin a sentence with, "All men are ..." or "Women just..." or "Kids these days are..."  The same is true when people start these generalizations not with a trait or characteristic over which we have no control (like our gender, our race, our age or nationality), but also when the "label" is of a more voluntary nature, such as one about our choice of religion, athletic interests, or political persuasion.

Today, however, I'm going to make an exception.  Texas Republicans are nuts!  Their 2010 Texas Republican Party Platform is xenophobic, homophobic, hate-filled, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing and just plain stupid. The HRC's latest mailing highlights the anti-gay elements (see this version, with offending texts highlighted, starting on p. 6).  Well beyond their condemnation of same-sex marriage and a desire to re-criminalize "sodomy" (whatever that is!), are positions from the ridiculous to silly to just plain mean. On the heels of stating that they "deplore all discrimination," they immediately state that they also "deplore forced sensitivity training."  So, in their judgment, acts that actually cause harm to people -- like discrimination in employment, education, housing, etc. -- are assessed with the same moral judgment (i.e. "deplored") as are attempts to provide education and training to help people understand what such discrimination might look like and how it can occur?

But beyond this sort of silliness, these Texas GOP folks also want to change the Constitution. However, they want to do so not by amending the Constitution, but simply by having the three branches of the federal government "clarify" it.  And what, exactly, do they want "clarified"?  Apparently the language of the 14th Amendment is not very clear to them, though perhaps it's because their own command of the English language isn't all that good, which is somewhat surprising, since the Platform also calls for the adoption of "American English as the official language of Texas and the United States"; but I digress.  The Texans want Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to be understood as conferring "birthright citizenship" only on the children of current citizens.  Here's what the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, Section 1 says:  "Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside," [emphases added]. Now, I'm no lawyer or Constitutional scholar, but I do understand English, including American English.  To me, that language is pretty clear: if you're born here, you're a citizen.

Texas GOPers want this "clarified."  And just so I don't misrepresent, here's their full platform plank:

"Birthright Citizenship – We call on the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of these United States to clarify Section 1 of the 14th amendment to limit citizenship by birth to those born to a citizen of the United States: with no exceptions."

If their view of the Constitution were the prevailing one, how many of us would not be citizens because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were born to immigrants who had not yet become naturalized citizens? The vast majority of Americans are the descendants of immigrants -- from Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and every corner of the globe. This openness to the foreigner should be reflected not only in the welcoming symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, but in the very laws that govern our land. America is, always has been, and always should be, a country that sees immigrants not as threats, but as assets; not as people to be feared, but as new neighbors to be welcomed. For Texas Republicans, however, the light's been turned off and the welcome mat removed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Southern Baptists and "Don't ask, don't tell"

Today's Washington Post reports that the large number of military chaplains from the highly conservative Southern Baptist Convention may have a disproportionate influence on the debate about repealing "Don't ask, don't tell." "'If a policy makes it more difficult - in fact, discourages - one of the groups that provides one of the largest numbers of chaplains to the military community from continuing to engage in chaplaincy ministry, that should raise significant concerns for them about the...spiritual well-being of our men and women in uniform,' said Barrett Duke..." from a Southern Baptist research institute.

Well, if the quality of that ministry is such that they need to perpetuate prejudice and bigotry based on a few misunderstood and misinterpreted passages from scripture, then perhaps the loss of their "ministry" to those in uniform might not be such a bad thing.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Social Workers Sponsor DC Mayoral Candidates Forum

Last evening I attended a Mayoral Candidates Forum sponsored by the DC chapter of the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) PAC called PACE (Political Action for Candidate Election). The invitation-only event had announced that all five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the September 14, 2010 primary -- incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty, City Council Chair Vince Gray, former newscaster Leo Alexander, real estate agent Ernest Johnson, and accountant Sulaimon Brown -- would be in attendance. Unfortunately, Fenty was a no-show and no explanation for his absence was given.

Considering the context of this election (Washington DC) and the audience of the forum (social workers), there were no major surprises in any of the candidates' answers to the several questions offered by the three-person panel. Here are some thoughts on the event::
  • This was a forum held in DC for a DC election. I had naively assumed that most attendees would be DC residents, eligible to cast their vote for one of the candidates. I was wrong. While no poll was taken, it was clear that a number of people in attendance were residents of either Maryland or Virginia, and that they merely worked for a DC government agency.
  • Ernest Johnson, whose campaign literature refers to his as an "anointed campaign," seemed like a 2010 version of Marion Barry. He comes across as a friendly sort, but he seemed much more focused on attacking what he called the "Fenty-Gray administration" than with offering anything positive. His website pictures a smiling Johnson attending a "Say NO to Same-Sex Marriage" rally, and he favors a referendum to put this issue "to the people."
  • Sulaimon Brown seemed ill-prepared and out of his league, so much so that I felt embarrassed for him. He apologized several times, saying that the notebook that contained his "research" had been stolen during a home break-in only hours before. But he seemed to lack even a basic understanding of issues, asking several times for questions to be repeated and for terms to be explained (e.g. "What's a BSW?" Answer: "Bachelor of Social Work").
  • Leo Alexander is a polished and well-prepared candidate.  He is articulate, thoughtful, and presents strong and reasonable arguments for his candidacy's platform -- arguments that might not be so well-received by some, because of his focus on "the root causes of poverty," including the breakdown of the African American family in DC. He had a facility with numbers and statistics, and seemed to have a systemic, "big picture" view of the interconnectedness of social problems that most social workers would subscribe to.  He also had some concrete plans if elected, including a promise to hire an "army of social workers" to be involved in schools and other agencies, and build a single DC government complex to reduce the rent paid by agencies dispersed throughout the city. Two things, however, made me cross him off my list of possibilities:
    • Immigration: his rhetoric on the high unemployment rates among African Americans in DC seemed pulled straight from Sarah P.'s playbook.  The reason for such high rates? Undocumented or illegal (read Hispanic/Latino) immigrants are hired for unskilled labor and construction jobs at wages that are apparently too low for others; 
    • Same-Sex Marriage: not only does he not support DC's recently-enacted law extending the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples, he also favors a referendum to put this issue to the voters (despite the fact that there have been 3 judicial rulings saying that such a referendum cannot go forward, as it would be against the fundamental human rights provision of the DC Charter).
  • Vince Gray found himself among a familiar and friendly crowd. He showed himself to be the seasoned politician he is, responding vociferously to Ernest Johnson's accusations about cronyism and no-bid contracts, but deflecting the accusations with the same low degree of specificity. He responded to questions directly, highlighted his experience and accomplishments, and came across as someone who can get things done. 
  • Perhaps my strongest disappointment was the lack of any discussion -- either initiated by a question or in a candidate's response -- about taxes and the city's finances. DC is among America's most expensive places to live and is among the top ten states when comparing the total tax burden on individuals. So much of the conversation seemed to be about ways in which DC government and its agencies could do more and more to solve problems, without any discussion about how much these "solutions" would further burden DC residents, not all of whom are K Street lobbyists.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Military Archbishop as Advocate for Injustice

The Catholic Archbishop for the Military Services, Timothy Broglio, yesterday joined the reactionary crowd of those seeking to retain the military's discriminatory "Don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay men and women in the military. That policy flies in the face of common sense and basic human decency. In this season of First Communions, even a 7-year old knows that telling a lie is a bad thing; yet this is what the archbishop and his ilk would have thousands and thousands of well-qualified Americans do if they wish to serve their country in uniform. Instead of being honest and open about who they are as God created them, Broglio would have God's gay and lesbian children remain in the darkened closet of lies and dishonesty.

Broglio's outrageous comments demonstrate not only the intellectual emptiness of the position held by most current church leaders, but also raises the question of whether religiously affiliated chaplains who are unable to uphold and adhere to all military policies should continue to serve in the military as military officers -- paid for with taxpayer dollars. Even when many military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support moving away from this failed policy, Broglio continues to repeat the old canard that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly will hurt "unit cohesion."

Not only is Broglio's position a slap in the face of gay men and women, it's also insulting to America's straight soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen.  Apparently the archbishop thinks they are not as mature as their international counterparts in countries like the UK and Israel, where gays and lesbians have served openly and successfully for years.

Not only is it time for "Dont ask, don't tell" to be laid to rest, it's also time for the archbishop to realize that military policies should reflect the non-discriminatory values that represent the best of what it means to be an American.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Do not close the door, but open the heart."

Country western singer Chely Wright speaks with honesty, openness, and humility ... and her Dad is an impressive man, too!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter (May 2/3, 2010)

Scripture Readings

Earlier this week, as I was searching through iTunes for various podcasts and other such things that I could download to my new iPod, I came across a lecture by Sir Jonathan Sacks.  Lord Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, and he was giving a lecture at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on the topic of a book he wrote a while back entitled, “The Dignity of Difference.” I haven’t yet had a chance to read this book – though I hope to in the near future – but the book’s subtitle is “How to avoid the clash of civilizations,” and its thesis, as I understand it, is to offer insights into how to deal with the very real and unique conflicts of the 21st century.  I mention this now because some of what I’m going to say comes from Rabbi Sacks and, coincidentally, is very relevant to the Scriptures we have before us this evening.
There is, I think, a tension that is experienced by all of us who claim that through our beliefs and expressions of religious faith we have some connection with the Truth, with the Divine, with God.  That tension can potentially be experienced by all people of faith – especially by those of us who come from the monotheistic traditions of the west and who believe in One Universal God who is the God of all that is, the God of all creation. This tension, sadly, is one that isn’t always expressed or resolved in a very pretty way.  And the tension is simply this:  If – on the one hand – we as a people of faith believe in the One God and in the tradition that is ours, the tradition that leads us to love and serve and worship and come to know God in THIS way -- and they who are “out there” – on the other hand – they who are not part of us and yet who also claim to know God in ways that are markedly different from ours, and perhaps even hold particular beliefs that are not only different but even contrary to ours – how can we both be right? If God is universal and One – shouldn’t the ways of knowing and serving God also be universal and One?

In today’s world, you don’t have to look very far to see what I was referring to when I said that this tension isn’t always expressed in a pretty way.  We live in a world where conflict and discord seem to be more the rule rather than the exception; and whil hopefully that’s less true in our personal lives that it is on the world stage, it may be true there, as well.  Whether we look at our own political battles here in the US – battles that seem to be becoming more strident every day – or if we look around the world and see the conflicts between powers great and small – isn’t it the case that all parties to such conflicts, regardless of what they are, are in some way claiming, “We have the Truth”? Aren't they claiming, “We are right, and you are wrong”?
It struck me as I was reading the scriptures for today how flawed that way of living in the world can be.  Let me read to you again a line from today’s 2nd reading from the Book of Revelation:  “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”

Notice that the author of this very Christian text does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the followers of Jesus.”  The author does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the Catholics … or the Protestants … or the Evangelicals … or even the Christians.” The author doesn’t say, “God’s dwelling is with the Jews … or the Muslims … or the Buddhists … or the atheists.”  The text does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the Democrats … or the Republicans … or the young … or the elderly … with the able-bodied or the physically-challenged.”  It doesn’t say, “God’s dwelling is with the straight people … or the gay people … or those who form families ‘this way’ or ‘that way.’”  The text is quite clear, especially with its more accurate translation of the Greek word, anthropon, translating it into English not as “men” (as was the case in some older translations), but as the more accurate “human race” or “humanity.”  God’s dwelling is with the human race; it is with all humanity that God dwells.  For those in our world who tend to see “the other” only by the labels that set them apart from us, that’s an essential insight for us to remember. God dwells with "them" as much an as completely as God dwells with "them."

That being said, what then, does it matter whether we are Christians or not? If being a good Christian leads ultimately to the same divine dwelling as does being a good Muslim, or a good Jew or a good American or a good Iranian … what difference does it make?  In the end, when the former earth has passed away and God’s reign of a new heaven and new earth is upon us, such distinctions might mean very little.  But in the meantime, you and I must live our lives not in the general, in the abstract … but we must live our lives in the concrete, the flesh-and-blood of the here-and-now. We must live our lives marked by the very real differences that exist among and between us.

In his lecture, Rabbi Sacks tells a story of when he was a young man, considering the possibility of becoming a rabbi.  He feared, however, that if he became more religious, more immersed in the faith and history and traditions of Judaism, that he might begin to lose interest in or even respect for things non-Jewish.  In sharing this fear with an old Rabbi, he was told this parable: 

“Imagine 2 people whose lives are spent carrying stones.  That’s what they do, they carry bags of stones. One spends his life carrying what he sees as just rocks and rubbish, and the other carries diamonds. Now, imagine if you give each a sack of emeralds. The person who spends his life carrying rocks thinks, ‘Ah  ... here’s just another heavy sack to ‘schlep,’ another burdensome weight to carry.’ But the one who spends his life carrying diamonds knows that these emeralds are stones of great value. And even though they aren’t diamonds, they’re still precious.  And so it is with us.  If your religion is for you just a heavy weight, a burdensome bag of rocks, a dead weight which you experience as a simply a strain on your back and in which you see no beauty at all, then not only will you not value your own religion, you won’t be able to value the religion of others.  But if you know your religion is beautiful and precious … if your religion and your faith are for you a beautiful diamond … then when you see an emerald, you may realize that it’s not your kind of stone, but you will also realize that on its own it is beautiful and precious.  The more we value and appreciate the real beauty of the faith which is ours, the better we can see and value the beauty in the faith lives of others.”

One of the diamonds for us as Christians is that very simple commandment of Jesus that we love one another. This is what we hear Jesus say today in our reading from John’s Gospel, which comes as part of John’s narrative when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples before his own passion and death.  You will recall that instead of telling his readers about the meal part of that event, John tells his readers about how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. That action is followed by Jesus’ explanation of what “washing feet” really means and how he gives them his commandment that we are to love others as he has loved us.

A couple weeks ago we read that passage from later on in John’s gospel, one of the post-resurrection encounters that the disciples have with Jesus – in which Jesus meets the disciples on the side of the lake, tells them what to do in order to haul in a great catch of fish, and then fixes breakfast for them and shares a meal. Recalling then the three times that Peter had “denied” Jesus just days before, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me.”  You may recall that in speaking about that passage, Fr. Bob mentioned that the Gospel writer actually uses two different words which, in the Greek of the original text, mean “to love.”  Agape is that self-less, altruistic love that God has for God’s people.  It is this kind of love that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel. That’s the word Jesus uses here, agape. Jesus’ great commandment to love one another is a commandment to love as he loved.

Let us pray that we may, as followers of Jesus in this place, in this time, in this day and age that is ours, that we may have the eyes of faith to see the beauty that is the diamond we have been given, and that following the example of Jesus, we may never fail to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, giving ourselves in loving service to all humankind.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

(This is posted out of order, and is a homily from February 2010)

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – February 13/14, 2010
Dignity – NoVA/Washington

Readings: Jer 17:5-8 ; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6 ; 1 Cor 15:12, 16-20 ; Lk 6:17, 20-26

One of the things that I try to keep in mind when preparing a homily is to find the right balance between the “general” and the “particular” aspects of what I might say.  By that, I mean making sure that my words are so rooted in the scriptural passages before us that the homily could almost be delivered to any community, while at the same time being very attentive to saying something – or at least trying to say something – that is relevant to the unique qualities and experiences of this particular, unique community. Obviously there are some things that those of us who preach can and do say in one setting that wouldn’t be said if we were preaching before a small community of retired nuns, or before a grammar school with young children.

Sometimes, however, a scripture passage or even just a particular line from a passage jumps out so boldly and so clearly, that this balance is upset, because that passage or that line seems to be almost uncannily applicable to the community being addressed, it would be difficult to preach the same message elsewhere.

I don’t know if it jumped out at you as it did me when I first read it, but there was a line in that Gospel passage we just listened to from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” that hit me like a ton of bricks.  In case you missed it, let me read it again:  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.”

Relatively speaking, there’s no doubt that you and I live in a gay-friendly part of the world.  Most of us are able to live openly and freely, with generally little fear about being known as part of the LGBT community. It’s quite probable that our neighbors and co-workers know this truth about who we are, and that this knowledge has very little consequence. There are bars and restaurants and other establishments that cater to a gay clientele, but even in those places that aren’t “gay” per se, gay men and women are accepted just like everyone else. In the more public sphere, progress continues to be made to advance the civil rights of gay people, as is evidenced by the impending legal recognition of same-sex marriage in DC, as well as the military’s movement to allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly.

Yet, despite living where we do, there are still regular reminders from both society and Church that we are not fully accepted. Just this past week, Virginia’s governor chose not to include “sexual orientation” in the Executive Order about discrimination in the state’s workforce that new governors traditionally issue shortly after their inauguration, suggesting at least philosophically (if not legally) that it’s OK to discriminate against someone simply because he or she is gay. Several days before that, the highest ranking churchman in the U.S. issued a statement that was highly critical of the work and mission of a Catholic organization that has done so much good for over three decades in building bridges between the institution of the Church and gay Catholics. Two Fridays ago – Cardinal Francis George, who is not only the archbishop of Chicago, but is also currently the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – issued a statement that read, in part:

“No one should be misled by the claim that New Ways Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice. Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination. Accordingly, I wish to make it clear that, like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of Church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.”

While perhaps not hateful, such statements by religious leaders clearly do have the effect of saying to the wider Church community and society at large – “those people may claim to be Catholic, but they really aren’t; “they’re not….” – to use the bishop’s word – "‘authentic’ like us.” It is this kind of speech that is a perfect example of what Franciscan Father Richard Rohr calls “dualistic thinking.” This kind of thinking – this way of seeing and experiencing and living in the world – is constantly judging and labeling and categorizing. It is always thinking of terms of who’s in and who’s out; who’s superior and who’s inferior; who’s included and who’s excluded. Last September I was fortunate enough to participate in a small retreat with Fr. Rohr – a retreat sponsored by New Ways Ministry. One of Fr. Rohr’s common themes in his writing and his preaching about faith and spirituality is to encourage a non-dualistic way of seeing the world, of learning to see that – as one of the titles of his books states – “Everything Belongs.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s hard to hear such statements like Cardinal’s George’s coming from the leaders of our Church and not get just a bit angry. It hurts to know that some Church leaders think we are “less than fully Catholic” – simply because we seek to know and accept the authentic selves that God has created us to be; and in that seeking and knowing, we may have something to say that could disturb their static worldview and challenge them to see us and the world with new eyes.

This week we begin the season of Lent, the Church’s extended 40-day “Annual Retreat” as we prepare to celebrate the deepest truth of our faith – a truth that says life and love conquer hatred and death. Perhaps what we need to do is keep mind not only the words of Jesus from this passage of Luke that promises blessing and God’s presence for those are now hungry, poor, weeping and excluded, but also keep in mind the words that the editors of our Lectionary didn’t include – the next two lines from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:  "But I say to you…love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Monday, March 08, 2010

US Dioceses, Same-Sex Marriage, and a Straight Man's Comment

I usually find quite interesting many of the comments posted in response to online stories. While I know they don't represent any scientifically valid sample, they do provide a glimpse into the views of some -- even if the "some" are self-selected and limited to a very small population.

Today's National Catholic Reporter carries a story about how different dioceses throughout the US have responded to the issue of same-sex marriage in their jurisdictions.  This comment, posted by "Michael Bindner,"  is spot on!

"It will be Catholic families, not governments, that will force the Church to recognize the marriages of their gay children.

The purpose of marriage under the law (including Canon Law) is NOT procreation, but the creation of a separate family unit. It separates two people from their families of origin and joins them into a new family. The Book of Genesis says as much about what happens when a man marries -how he leaves his family and cleves to his wife (and now his husband or her wife)

It's not just about health insurance. If it were that simple, Leveda's choice would have been correct. Instead, it is about saying who your family is and is not. When I married my wife, I left my family and she left hers. We are owned by each other, not our families. When my brother married his husband, he should have the same protections from his siblings and mother. Put another way, his husband and my wife should be on equal footing with regard to familial rights and this footing should be recognized everywhere, and for the sake of both our Catholic family and my brother-in-law's Catholic family, this union should be celebrated in the Church."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent – Year C (March 6/7, 2010)

  • Have you ever had an experience in which you sensed deeply the Presence of God?
  • Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you just knew – in a way that you couldn’t put in to words – that you were in the presence of something truly Good, truly Holy, truly Divine?
  • Have you ever been caught off guard by something quite extra-ordinary in the midst of the very ordinary, something that caused you to stop what you were doing and really, really pay attention?
That’s the kind of experience that Moses had as told in the first reading we listened to from Exodus.  Moses was busy about his daily work, simply doing his job of tending the sheep of his father-in-law’s flock. And in this midst of this … in the midst of doing something that probably had become quite ordinary and mundane … something very unusual happens. Moses sees this burning bush – a bush on fire yet not consumed.  This “burning bush” experience proved to be a turning point, a decisive moment in his life that helped him understand his true purpose in life, being called by God to be the one to lead the Israelites out of slavery and – eventually – toward freedom and dthe Promised Land.

Such “burning bush” experiences are not infrequent in Sacred Scripture, nor are they infrequent in the lives of holy women and men throughout history, women and men who do great things because of what they understand God to be asking of them.
  • For Mary of Nazareth, her experience of the angel-messenger lead her to say “yes” to something she didn’t fully understand, but which she knew was from God.
  • For her husband Joseph, his dream experience lead him to abandon his own plans of quietly putting Mary out and instead choosing to cooperate in God’s plan for his life, a plan which was at odds with what he saw as his future.
In more recent times ….
  • The self-described unbeliever, Thomas Merton, found himself drawn to a Catholic liturgy in a New York City church that changed his life and set him down an unpaved road of conversion, faith, and mystic spirituality, ultimately becoming one of the most influential Catholic writers of the last century.
  • For Teresa of Calcutta, her “call within a call” came on a train ride on the way to annual retreat when she was still a Sister of Loreto, a call she would describe as Jesus’ own plea to “satisfy his thirst” by serving the poorest of the poor.
These are all examples of moving and dramatic “burning bush” experiences.  They are identified in the lives of those who lived them as singular turning points, events that had the power to change the course of their lives and – in some cases – the course of history.

Perhaps you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions that I mentioned at the beginning. Perhaps you, too, have had a “burning bush” experience – a moment of great epiphany, an “Aha!” moment in which you knew that what was to follow in your life would be very different from what had come before.

Whether we have had such an experience or not, such moments of great conversion or personal drama are not the only way in which the Divine is known. In fact, it’s probably more often the case that God – self-identified to Moses as “the one who causes to be whatever comes into existence” – is present in the simple, the ordinary, and every-day.

Earlier this week, a colleague and I were both working a little late, after everyone else in our part of the office had gone home. She knows I’m Catholic and knows my background, and so she asked me, “Do you do Lent?”  This is a woman who describes herself as “not a very good Jew,” and so she was a little apologetic about her phrasing, not knowing if that was the right way to ask the question. She asked because she had been speaking earlier in the day with another Catholic colleague, and she also has a number of good friends and even some relatives who are practicing Catholics, and she hears them speak of “giving something up for Lent."  She also wanted to know if Lent for Catholics was like Yom Kippur for Jews, with its focus on atoning for the things you’re sorry for.  I first explained that it would be more accurate to speak of “observing” Lent rather than “doing” Lent, and then went on to say how our observance of Lent is not quite like Yom Kippur, most notably because of our fundamental Christian belief that the work of “atonement” was accomplished once and for all by Jesus with his full and complete gift of self through his death on the Cross.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t describe this little chat as a “burning bush” experience – no great epiphany that is leading me to major life changes. But it was, I think, an experience of the Presence of God. That little interaction caused me to stop – even for just a few moments – and enter a world that I can so often be blind to.

We all have busy lives, filled with responsibilities at work and at home; lives filled with endless voicemails and emails and text messages. We are constantly on the go, constantly moving from one thing to the next.
Lent invites us to slow things down – to put our cell phones on “silent” [or better yet, turn them off!]; to unplug our iPod earphones and experience the world – which, almost by definition, is an experience of God – in new and different ways.  It’s a time for us to rekindle a ‘burning bush’ experience we ourselves may have had in our past; or it’s a time to allow the experiences of others to ignite our minds and hearts to see the revelation of God in our midst.  It is a time to allow our Lenten practices of meatless Fridays and occasional fasting to be “planned opportunities” – providing the time and the space and the freedom in which we may become just that much more attuned to the possibility of an unplanned encounter with God. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P - RIP

Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx died just two days before Christmas.  He was 95. I'm ashamed to admit that I never read much of Fr. Schillebeeckx, either in my seminary years or afterward. After reading a short reflection on this influential theologian's life and work, written by a former student, I hope to change that in the year ahead.  The reflection ended with this quotation from Schillebeeckx.

"The crucified but risen Jesus appears in the believing, assembled community of the church. That this sense of the risen, living Jesus has faded in many [churches] can be basically blamed on the fact that our churches are insufficiently ‘communities’ of God…. Where the church of Jesus Christ lives, and lives a liberating life in the footsteps of Jesus, the resurrection faith undergoes no crisis. On the other hand, it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a God who minimizes human beings, holds them under and oppresses them, with a view to a better world to come."

—Edward Schillebeeckx, “The Church with a Human Face”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year C – January 9/10, 2010

Dignity NoVA / Dignity, Washington DC

I once read that every theological statement that is of value or truly meaningful always has a degree of paradox about it. Statements about God and the Divine that are worth anything at all always are a bit mysterious, and they cause us to stop for moment, to ask “how can that be?” or “what does that mean?” They cause us to pause and to scratch our heads!

I kept coming back to this idea in thinking about what we celebrate today – the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is an event in the life of Jesus which is re-told in all four Gospels, though each presentation is somewhat different. This year, as we read from the Gospel of Luke, we have Luke’s account in this third Chapter which starts off with John, the Baptizer, preaching what Luke calls “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” People are coming out to John and he is speaking very strong words about how they must mend their ways. And – lest anyone think that John is talking merely about something spiritual, merely about a change of heart – he speaks very explicitly about how they must “produce good fruits as evidence of their repentance.” The repentance that John preaches is very socially oriented, very justice oriented, and one that must bear itself out in concrete action.

This is the scene that Luke sets before the passage we just heard. Jesus – whom Luke says was about thirty years old – comes forward and receives this baptism of repentance with all the other people. Luke is the only Gospel writer who says that, after the baptism, Jesus was at prayer. Only then do we have the big “Hollywood moment” with the dramatic scene with the dove-like Holy Spirit and the divine declaration, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” Then – as if this voice from heaven were not enough to convince that Jesus is indeed the Son of God – Luke provides something that the editors of the Lectionary didn’t include: a lengthy list of Jesus’ paternal lineage going back for 76 generations (“...was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi,…) all the way back to “… Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

Now, we may ask ourselves, “Did Jesus need to receive this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, since he was ‘the sinless one’; and if he didn’t need to, then why did he?” It’s a good question, as is the question, “what does Baptism mean for us?”

When I was in active parish ministry in a large parish north of Boston, we celebrated baptism not only through a very active and large RCIA program – the process by which un-baptized adults are catechized and welcomed into the sacramental life of the Church – but we also celebrated every month a very large number of infant baptisms. These celebrations would sometimes have eight, ten, even fifteen children being brought by their parents and families for baptism. Our practice was that the priest who was presiding that month would also conduct the catechetical sessions for the parents and godparents. Whenever I conducted these sessions, I would usually ask the assembled group – folks usually in their twenties or early thirties, some of whom hadn’t been inside a Church since the day of their Confirmation or their Wedding – what Baptism meant to them. Invariably some would say it meant being “cleansed of original sin.” And while this is not incorrect, the fundamental meaning of Baptism is much more than this.

For us as Christians – the fundamental and central meaning of Baptism goes beyond the meaning of John’s baptism, mere forgiveness of sins. At its core, Christian Baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. To be baptized means to die and rise with Christ. At the celebration of Baptism, when the water of the baptismal font is blessed, the prayer of blessing ends with these words: “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life.” The small rituals we perform immediately after Baptism are meant to exemplify what has just been celebrated. For example, the newly baptized is clothed with a white garment, indicating that the old self has died and the baptized has “…become a new creation in Christ.”

Dying and Rising, Life through Death – that’s a paradox if ever there was one!

How can Life come from Death? How can Life come from the loss or absence of Life? All of us want to live, but who among us wants to die? Death means loss, it means letting go. It often means sadness and pain and suffering, too. This is true of our own physical death – and perhaps even more true when we experience the loss of someone we know and love. It is also true of the ways in which we must die a thousand deaths this side of the grave, in order to be fully alive. As followers of Jesus, we are challenged to live out our baptism each and every day – and sometimes that means dying and letting go.

Are there things today that I need to let go of in order to experience the new creation I already am? Are there things within my heart or my mind that are needlessly taking up space, needlessly distracting me from being the child of God I became in baptism? Are thing parts of my life that I need to let go of, to empty out, making room for the Spirit to dwell more fully within me?
  • Perhaps there’s a friendship I have ignored and let slip away through inattention or ambivalence.
  • Perhaps I am weighed down by my attachment to wealth, to power, to possessions.
  • Maybe I am so absorbed with the daily problems of my own life that I am unable to see and hear my sisters and brothers in need.
  • Perhaps there is within me too much anger or resentment at a Church that admittedly fails to fully live the Gospel message it’s called to preach, especially in welcoming her gay and lesbian children.
Whatever might be in the way of living out our own baptism, there is one thing we can be certain of. Just as the voice from heaven spoke at Jesus’ baptism, that same voice of God reminds us each and every day that we, too, are God’s beloved daughters and sons. We, too, even as LGBT people created in God’s image, are God’s beloved children with whom God is well-pleased. Many centuries ago, St. Irenaeus said that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” As we come to the end of this Christmas Season – the season that celebrates the paradoxical reality that the Divine became Human, the mysterious marriage of Divinity with Humanity – let us pray that we may be fully, joyfully alive each and every day.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Joseph Ratzinger on Conscience and Papal Authority

“Over the Pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority [emphasis added]. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.”

Joseph Ratzinger in: Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II ,Vol. V., pg. 134 (Ed) H. Vorgrimler, New York, Herder and Herder, 1967.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Enough Light for the Next Step"

"Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, 'How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?' There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away."

From Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, entry of January 8.