Facing the Lord: Pentecost IV homily

When we stand before the holy God, when we are confronted with the superabundance of His mercy and love, then

  • everything that we think matters so much
  • everything that we say God and others should accept about who we are
  • everything that scares or overwhelms
  • everything that draws our attention and captures our imagination
  • even every joy and happiness

everything else fades away and dissipates.

That’s what it means to rest. To be at rest. To put to rest our fantasies for how things should be. Not because our thoughts, hopes, fears, imaginations and desire are unimportant. But because we are single-minded. We have fixed our hearts on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sits on the right hand of the throne of God.

Notice how Our Lord perfects, how He completes us: by leading us through our crosses, our anxieties, our fears—which we get through both because He lead us, and because He shows us joys that give us the strength to live through these heartaches. And so the things that seem so important to us, truly pale in comparison to Our Lord and His relentless compassion.

This is our hope, now and in all times: that Our Lord sees, and knows, and has experienced trials like the ones we now endure; and that He has constructed the way of escape. A way that is not like the ways we currently see—from frustration to turmoil, from anxiety to despair. The way Our Lord builds, the way He leads us through, the Way He is—that is a way where everything that divides is united, every disease is healed, every hatred is overcome, and every death is atoned—for those who love Him and align themselves with His commandments.

This way of escape does not require us to carry the weight of world, or the oppressed, or our families cares on our shoulders. The cross of Christ holds all those things. He shoulders our burden. And He simply asks us to take a splinter or two of that cross while we walk with Him in the way that leads to salvation.

This way of escape does not mean that we evade our responsibility to love by putting the needs and lives of others before our own. Our Lord Christ holds in His arms all who are poor, neglected, oppressed, abused, and ignored. And He simply asks us to be aligned with Him in a love that trusts that He knows what He’s doing and with an obedience that sacrifices our desires.

This way of escape does not require us to be Übermenschen, with an indomitable will to power through the wrongs that needs to be righted. Our Lord Christ is the True Man whose humility and self-denial and sacrifice have already made all earthly powers an illusion. And He simply asks that we have confidence that His way of humility and self-offering is not just the best way, but the only way that actually leads to a lasting good.

All of this comes clear as we stand with the Holy Apostle Peter before Our Lord, cognizant of His mercy. Peter stands facing Our Lord who just relieved him of the burden and apprehension of how Peter will care for his family. For spending all night not catching fish greatly depresses and deprives the income of a fisherman—and so, how he will provide for his family and business. But the miraculous catch of fish not only makes his income whole, but also helps Peter see that his family will be taken care of by a Father who never forsakes the righteous, nor lets his descendants beg for bread.

Peter stands facing the Lord. And we stand facing that same Lord in this place when we behold the Lamb of God, Christ present in His body and blood, physically as well as spiritually. With Peter, we see Our Lord with our eyes. And with Peter, we are invited to share in His divine nature.

But it doesn’t seem right to stand before the holy God, as He presents us with the superabundance of His mercy and love. It doesn’t seem right because we know who we are. We are made of dust and ashes. We do not order our lives aright, but rather follow our disordered, misplaced, self-loving desires. We put ourselves forward and take on what Our Lord carries, because we believe the lie that nothing gets done unless we make it happen. And we give in, more and more, to our fear that time is running out, and that we’ll miss our chance at whatever.

When we really confront ourselves, when we truly explore our motives, when we look at what draws our eye away from Christ, our ears away from His life-giving commands, and our attention away from His beauty—when we see who we truly are, then it doesn’t seem right to stand before the Lord whose mercy exceeds our imagination.

And so, with Peter, we should be on our knees. Kneeling because the Lord’s love engulfs us and moves us, not to fear nor despair, but to see that only Christ and His love matters more than any and everything else. And, as we should, we echo St Peter’s words: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man. Depart from me, because I fear that Your kindness is too much. Depart from me, for I don’t have enough words to say, and enough things to give in order to truly give thanks. Depart from me, because this unholy person cannot stand or kneel in the presence of the Holy God.”

Yet here is the best thing of all. Even though we are right; even though Our Lord should depart—He stays put. He does not leave us, He does not forsake us. He does not say, “You’re on your own.” He does not tell us to figure it out. Instead, Our Lord relieves and lessens our load, and eases our fears, and increases our hope. By drawing us closer to Him. And by inviting us to partner with Him as He, in humility and love, changes the world.

To partner with Jesus. Not to be in the lead, but to follow His lead. To team with Him, as if we are equals. Yet to realize that this is His movement, His way, not ours. And that He is the head and we are the members of His body.

That’s an astounding summons—not just for Peter, but for each one of us when Jesus says, “Take up your cross, the cross that I’m carrying for you, and follow me. For I know the way. And I know the best means to get there. Because I’ve done this already once for you.”

To be sure, we think we know better. And our pride kicks in and says we need to do what we need to do. But that’s not how love responds to Love Himself. True love responds with trust and obedience: with confidence that Christ knows best, and heeding whatever rules He gives—no matter how much they hurt or seem wrong.

True love responds as Peter, James, and John did: by forsaking our foolish ways, by laying aside all earthly cares, by sacrificing our pet ideas, by putting to death our carefully crafted identity—in order to be all in with Him, who is All in All.

May God give us strength to be who we are baptized to be: children who stand enraptured with the love of God.

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The Heart of Love: A Homily

Blood poured from the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That blood was shed not to validate my truth or your truth; for these versions of truth participate in a false truth, which cries out for an answer to Pilate’s maddening question: What is truth? It’s a maddening question because—as Pilate sees it, as we too often see it—there is no answer. For we think that truth is like leaves blowing in the wind; fragments which you can catch if you work hard enough while many more vexingly fly quickly away. What is truth? He stands before Pilate. For truth is not a belief of what I am cocksure is true. Truth is the person. And the blood that pours from the Most Sacred Heart of Truth Himself asserts that only one Truth is real: that His blood is shed to raise us from the death-blows we continually inflict upon our own selves and thereby upon His holy body.

Blood poured from the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That blood flowed not to confirm my narrative or yours, but to proclaim that there is only one narrative. And we don’t need to get behind it. We need to be within it, and it within us. Which means we need to give up the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and then insist that others listen. These stories, because they are mine and come from me, are rooted in pride: and so they are not, and cannot be aligned, with the Passion of the Christ. That story is the only real story. It is the story of the Son of Man determining to take all our brokenness, all our disordered passions, everything that labels, and misidentifies, and drives a wedge between you and me, between us and them—and, as a result, between God and humans—that story of Our Lord healing us by urging us to trust

  • that His self-sacrifice is the only way love works;
  • that His asceticism gives strength to our self-denial;
  • that He sits at our table to speak mercy tenderly into our ears;
  • that He is willing to embrace, and then die for, those who hated Him.

That story, His story, His narrative to put away the sword and then heal the man who persecuted Him when He persecuted Christ’s body;

  • That story of dying to give life, of long-suffering which revitalizes, of being wounded to heal, of becoming my worst self and your worst self, to forgive me and you,
  • That, and that alone, must be our story.

Blood poured from the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That blood poured forth to give birth to something new: a society never before imagined because our societies are always built from fear and are maintained only by power or threats. This new society eschews every tribalism, and every attempt to re-create a new world made after our image and according to our likeness. Instead, this new society, which poured from the pierced Heart of Our Lord, is the society of all nations, all races, all languages, all people whom God seeks in His justice; which is

  • the unfairness of His mercy given to those who turn to Him
  • the determination of paying the cost in His blood to return His own
  • the diligence of doing whatever it takes to win us back, not by intimidation or self-serving pity, but by honoring our free will while loving us into His heart.

Gushing out of Our Lord’s Most Sacred Heart was the water and blood which were the full measure and public demonstration of His love for us. For at one and the same time, the price of our salvation coupled with the strength of His sacraments issued from the hidden and unending fountain of His compassion. This saving bath from which the new society was born; this holy drink which satisfies those who gather together to taste God’s truth and justice—this is poured over us, and into our lips, to give us the ability to love with the same heart which first loved us.

To love all as Christ first loved us is

  • to castigate none;
  • to push away none;
  • to demonize none;
  • to ridicule none;
  • and never to condition your love on others accepting you.

For that is not the way of Christ. And so it ought not be our path.

To love with the heart of Christ is to see that we are the shepherd. When Christ, the Good Shepherd, leaves the ninety-nine, He is leaving all that is secure, all that is peaceful, all that is as it should be, in order to enter the scariest places and do battle with the meanest forces just to rescue us. And in doing this, He thinks nothing—not one thing—about Himself, His desires, His needs. Instead, He willingly leaves the ninety-nine, which are the angelic choir who will not be full-throatedly rejoicing until all of humankind joins them in this new society, this heavenly kingdom.

To love with the heart of Christ is to see that we are the woman. She frantically searches not because she is obsessed with shiny, glittering gold. Rather, she wishes to return into her purse everyone stamped with the image of Christ the King; everyone made according to His likeness; everyone redeemed at the price of His life. So consider this: the one lost coin does not realize that it is lost, but the Holy Spirit, as this woman, will search every crevice so that the purse is filled in this new society where every soul is valuable and priceless.

And to love with the heart of Christ is to see not only that the Father stands at the window, eagerly awaiting our return. More importantly—and too often missed—is this: that when the Son leaves the Father, this is also the Father making Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us:

  • to live in our disordered world;
  • to experience our self-degradation;
  • to endure our pitilessness;
  • and to sit in our filth.

The Son does this so that He might return us, in His own flesh, to His Father, so that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Do you see what really pours from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus? Not the demand to be loved. Yet also not blaming or shaming. And no vitriol or hate-filled words. Certainly, no name calling or labeling 0r boxing-up others.

What also does not come from Christ’s heart is saccharin, or the idea that nothing needs to be done, and the ostrich-hope that the bad will go away.

What pours forth from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is Jesus Himself. The patience, the mercy, the sweat, the blood. All that is He. All that He has. All for the good of me. For the benefit of you. For the well-being of all.

Thy Heart, O most dear Jesus, is the good treasure, the pearl of great price, which we find by digging in the field of thy body. Who would cast aside this pearl? I will rather give all my pearls, I will exchange for it all my thoughts and everything I hold dear in my story—so that I may purchase this one pearl for myself, and expend every effort and turn my every thought to the Heart of the Jesus who, without fail, supports me. O most sweet Jesus, so that my heart may align with thy good Heart; so that I may find my heart secured within thine—I implore thee to accept my prayers and ever more draw me into thy holy and sacred heart. For with thee is the fountain of life: and in thy light shall we see light.

St Bonaventure (paraphrased)

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Loving Enemies

Love your enemies. That statement by Jesus is unique to Christianity. What is even more unique is how that statement is lived. We see ‘love your enemies’ when we look at Jesus in His Passion. He tells Peter to put away his sword, and then heals one of the men brutalizing Jesus. He doesn’t resist. He isn’t defensive. And as He is dying, He asks God the Father to forgive them because they are ignorant about who they are really attacking; because He truly loves them.

We also see ‘love your enemies’ in action with St Stephen. His last moments are similar to Jesus. Treated with injustice, brutalized, put to death—and this holy deacon begs Jesus to forgive them.

‘Love your enemies.’ But that’s not all. ‘And pray for those who persecute you.’ Which is what Jesus, St Stephen, St Peter, St Paul, and holy women and men throughout history have done. They have prayed for their persecutors, those who terrorize them, the abusers, and those who mistreat them. And the prayer is not ‘Make them stop’ but ‘Forgive them, be merciful to them, do not hold this wrong they are doing to me against them.’

All of this is challenging in the abstract. When our enemy is a nameless, faceless person; someone on social media or someone in the news or someone far away—those folks are difficult but also easier to love.

But when someone is attacking you, someone from your own family, someone you know well, someone like Judas or Saul—when that is your enemy, then the command to ‘love your enemy’ truly matters. And that is really what Jesus is talking about. The person who is raging against you. The one who is getting in your face, yelling and screaming at you, threatening you, making you feel unsafe—that is the one, above all else, that we are called to love. That person, in that moment, is the one out of 99 that Jesus, through you, reaches out to.

“That’s what I would really like: that even at the moment when your enemy is raging against you, you then turn your eyes to the Lord your God and speak the words of Jesus or St Stephen: Father, forgive them.” (St Augustine)

So watch yourself, especially when your enemy is someone close to you, someone you know. Watch yourself that you don’t become their enemy. Instead, love them. For “in no way at all can your raving enemy do you more harm that you do to yourself, if you don’t love your enemy. He can damage your house, your stuff and, at most, if he’s given the authority, he can harm your body. But can he do what you can do by your hatred: can he, as you yourself can, do any damage to your soul?”

To love your enemy, then, is to protect your soul. To love your enemy is not simply an ideal for saintly people. It is what you must do to make sure you don’t throw away the love of God and your heavenly inheritance. We must not let our passions, our hatred, our desire to strike back, our extreme words, or any aggression of any kind get ahold of us. For then we kill our very self far more than no enemy, no matter how brutal, can do to us.

I say this to you for two reasons. First, too many of us are saying and sharing and posting and retweeting things that are truly hurtful—to our family, to our parish, to those who aknow us. This is hatred in words, and it is slowly killing us when we give into it. Standing up for what we believe in does not mean lashing out at those who disagree or who are even wrong. The Christian responds to these things, not by laying down, but also not by picking up the gun or the phone or any other weapon of metal or words. The Christian responds by saying, “Father, forgive them” and by trying, at all costs, to win the enemy by love. And he does this chiefly to guard his own soul; and then also to help Christ win back one from the 100.

The second reason I’m reflecting on our Lord’s command is because of the response to terrorism from our Patriarch in Damascus. The decades, even centuries, Christians have been persecuted and put to death. These brothers and sisters in Christ know their enemies—their faces, their names, where they live. And the Patriarch’s own brother, together with another bishop, were kidnapped and possibly brutalized 7 years ago. And what is His Beatitude’s response? “Christians…are still paying, with their lives and their fate, taxes to terrorism and violence: displacement, kidnapping, murder, and many a tribulation. Despite all this, [Christians] remain faithful to their pledge of love for Jesus Christ, as the Lord who redeemed them on the Cross and implanted them in this East two thousand years ago, to proclaim the joy of His Gospel.”

To proclaim the joy of the Lord’s Gospel: the Gospel of mercy, love, kindness, forgiveness—that is our only task. And that, more than anything else, is what it means to love your enemy.

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Enjoy This Blessing!

We are, right now, in the kingdom of God; and Christ is in our midst, speaking to us, inviting us to partake of a great banquet, a great feast! So this is not a gathering of people who think the same way, who agree on everything, or have the same tastes and interests. And this is not an event like we are used to, where we need to be stimulated, and our emotions manipulated, and our needs satisfied. We are in God’s court. Our Father is presiding. The Holy Spirit is drawing us nearer and nearer to Our Lord so that we might draw nearer to Him and each other.

This is a great blessing—to be invited by God to be here; to be a member of His body; to be attached to our Head. This is a great blessing—to be welcomed, not because we demand it or deserve it, but despite our flaws and short-comings. This is a great blessing—to not be labeled or judged by anything except that we have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

And the greatness of this blessing sits on the altar. It’s a banquet, prepared by Christ, for which He paid dearly. It’s a feast where He gives back to us the flesh and blood He took from us so that He might transform us by His love and sacrifice.

This banquet doesn’t look like much because our eyes clouded over with the cataracts of materialism, which are informed by our physical desires. We seek physical delights—something that feeds our passions—the passions of gluttony, lust, envy, and pride. That’s what we want to see—a great spread, a feast for the stomach, something that pleases and whets our appetite.

When that is all we see, when that is all we want, then anything else can draw us away. Then we come to this altar only when it’s convenient; or to assuage some guilt; or to fulfill some duty. Otherwise, we’d rather be somewhere else. We’d rather be indulging our senses—because this doesn’t look like much.

And so the excuses pour in. “I cannot come to this banquet. Don’t bother me now. There are so many other things that demand my attention. Helping others, seeking justice, protecting my stuff, meeting my needs, making sure I don’t miss out—all of that is more important than standing here, with my brothers and sisters, standing before Christ, heeding His invitation to partake of His divine nature.”

What is offered here in this place is something no angel will ever taste. The food offered here, thousands before Christ’s death never received. But it’s given for us. It’s given to you. And for your good.

If you miss out on this, you miss out on eternal life. You can eat other food and live, for a time. But if you turn up your nose at this food; if you believe your feelings, your thoughts, your fears, your wishes are more important; if you think this food is yours to take whenever you’re good and ready, and when everyone and everything is as it should be—then you run the risk of pushing aside life Himself; and you jeopardize your soul. For here, surrounded by saints and angels and this family of ours, however disagreeable we may sometimes be—here Christ’s flesh and blood are served to you. And not just to you as individuals, but to all of us together. And He says clearly: ‘everyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’

Enjoy this blessing, then! Let nothing stand in the way. Not your fears. Not your disordered passions. Not your desire to control. Not your inability to see what’s really going on. Instead, in faith and love, draw near.

And while you approach, and when you receive this tremendous godsend, guard yourself. Guard your impulse to be overcome by anger or pride. Guard your tendency to give into your lustful desires. Guard your inclination to speak your mind. Rather, consider how ennobled you are; how much respect and dignity our Savior shows to you by letting you kneel here with others who are so different from yourself, and taste not just His kindness but also His very flesh and blood. And let that truth, Truth Himself, restrain every unruly stirring, and every presumptuous yet hurtful judgment that you feel entitled to speak.

For who has taken on every hurt, every abuse, every brutality, every crime? Isn’t it Our Lord Jesus in His Passion and Death? Let’s not add to them, then, by our hate-filled words or our violent and extreme accusations. Who has taken all hatred into Himself and transformed it into life-giving, life-restoring, life-renewing love? Isn’t that also Our Lord Jesus? Let’s believe that what He gives us here, can give us the courage to withstand every evil impulse, and the boldness to speak not my truth or your truth but Truth, which Our Lord truly is.

Take to heart that the power and grace which changes the bread and wine also converts and transfigures whoever receives this Holy and Blessed Sacrament with true faith. Believe, and hold fast, and trust, that what is really given is really here; and as you give thanks more and more for this astounding kindness and generosity—then you’ll know that Truth tells the truth when He says that you will live because of Him.

The only thing you should fear, then, is saying the horrid words spoken in today’s Gospel: “I cannot come. I will not come. I don’t wish to come.”

Instead, lift up your heart, and draw near, looking only at Our Lord and His Supper. “Believe me, this Sacrament drives away not only death but also all diseases. For when Christ abides in us, He calms our sinful urges; He strengthens piety; He extinguishes the passions; He heals our wounds; and He raises us up after every fall.” (St Cyril of Alexandria)

To this Lord Jesus Christ, whose flesh is food indeed and whose blood is drink indeed, together with His all-holy Father and His life-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Ponder the Mystery: Corpus Christi Homily

Take a minute to consider the honor your heavenly Father bestows on you; the respect He shows you; the kindness and thoughtfulness He has for you; the gift He offers you.

What the Father suggested when He told the children of Israel to eat the Passover; what the Son of God celebrated with His Apostles at the Last Supper—this is the table, the feast, the altar that the Spirit brings to you, and sets before you, and urges you to join.

Abraham, King David, the Prophet Isaiah, Ruth, the prophetess Deborah, the Queen Mother Bathsheba—none of these holy men and women, these matriarchs and patriarchs—not one of them tasted what is so readily served to you.

No angel will ever get what the Lord gives you. What we are given drove Lucifer insane with jealousy. And it creates an unquenchable desire within Michael and Gabriel.

Those children whom Christ held; the men and women who felt His healing hand; the little girl Jesus raised from the dead by gently lifting her up—as much as they were blessed, none of them received at that time the blessing, the boon, the miracle that is right before your eyes, ready to be placed in your mouth.

Sometimes we pine to hear His voice, to see His face, because we think the people who heard and saw Christ Jesus before His passion had it better than we do now. But while you wonder what it was like for them, they envy you.

For you and me—each one of us that gets to draw nigh and take the body of the Lord, each one of us that gets to consume the Lord so that His blood mingles with ours, His flesh is knit to our flesh—each one of us, when we receive the Blessed Sacrament—only we know what it was like to be the Holy Mother of God.

For she carried in her womb Him whom the world cannot contain. She felt growing within her the God through whom all things were made. This young teen-aged girl was blessed by the Father’s Spirit to be able to say, “His blood is intermingled with mine; Christ’s flesh is united with my flesh.”

You and I can speak the same way. The Lord’s blood flows through our veins. The Lord’s flesh feeds our life. Jesus’ own Self is conjoined to our self.

That is the gift we celebrate today. Not that God is nice to us. Not that Jesus loves us. Not that the Holy Spirit inspires and moves us. But that God’s own nature unites with our nature. That the Holy Trinity actually, truly, undoubtedly, and without hesitation makes a home within our very being: in our soul as well as our mind; in our body as well as our heart.

Ponder the reverence the Most High God shows you. Marvel at the attention He pays to you. Meditate upon the mystery that is both held before your eyes and then placed in your mouth.

And as you do, as you draw near believing that what I hold in my hand is actually what Jesus said it is; as you behold no longer some piece of bread but Christ’s body and blood, together with His soul and divinity—understand, then, and take to heart that this conversion, this change, this miracle happens for only one reason: so that you might partake of the divine nature. So that the Lord God might actually permeate your nature with His; and imbed Himself within you.

This happens not because of anything I have done. A priest does not cause the offered bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the work of Christ Himself, who was crucified for you. I simply say the words obediently; but their power and grace are God’s. (St John Chrysostom)

And that power and grace which changes the bread and wine also converts and transfigures you. Slowly, if you resist. To your harm, should you deny the mystery. But as your faith in this sacrament grows; as you own the gift, embracing and depending on it; as you begin to see, and believe, and hold fast, and trust that what is really given is really there; and as you give thanks more and more for this astounding kindness and generosity—then you’ll know that Truth tells the truth when He says that you will live because of Him.

The life you live from this Holy Eucharist—it is a life no longer lived with fear because you have seen that, however things go, the Lord’s goodness prevails. And life lived from this Blessed Sacrament is a life no longer lived wanting more or different, because you know that nothing can match or exceed this Holy Gift. And life lived from this Holy Communion is a life no longer lived pursuing other goals because there is nothing else, except to live in the kingdom of heaven, surrounded by the saints and angels, sitting at the Lord’s Table.

As you taste the Lord in His Sacrament and see what He gives you from this altar, you will realize true justice and righteousness; complete beauty and authentic love; and a unity that exceeds all other intimacy.

Only this, then, can cause you pain and grief—if you are deprived of this heavenly food, either because your sin requires you to abstain, or because your neglect and selfish desires have kept you away, or because our Father, in His wisdom, has prevented you.

But if none of these are the case, do not deny yourself this food. Do not think up reasons to stay away. And do not let your pride or pity keep you at home. Instead, with all that you have, hasten with gladness to receive the blessing Christ offers you in His holy chalice. For you want eternal life; and here it is. You want to know that you are safe and protected; and the blood on your lips drives away the devil, and the flesh you consume brings you through the grave.

Lift up your hearts, then, and draw near with an earnest heart, focusing on Our Lord and His Supper. “Believe me, this Sacrament drives away not only death but also all diseases. For when Christ abides in us, He calms our sinful urges; He strengthens piety; He extinguishes the passions; He heals our wounds; and He raises us up after every fall.” (St Cyril of Alexandria)

To this Lord Jesus Christ, whose flesh is food indeed and whose blood is drink indeed, together with His all-holy Father and His life-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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The Trinity in Action

Perhaps it feels like the Feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates one of those cold, impersonal, esoteric doctrines that has very little to do with what’s going in the world. We might think it’s part of the ‘ivory tower’ or elitist or ‘head in the clouds’ concepts that we love to deride. Or we might believe that faith in the Holy Trinity is good but impractical; that it’s a fine conviction that we must hold, but that holding it doesn’t really make a real and useful difference right now.

Right now, we should be focused on more down to earth things. Right now, we should be doing deeds more than creeds. Right now, our care for humanity and the problems of society doesn’t give us the room or the luxury of fine theology. That’s what we feel. And it frustrates us.

My frustration, and perhaps yours, can lead to that conclusion because, deep down, we believe in God. That’s all. Just ‘God.’ The idea. The comfort. The hope.

But God is not an idea. God is not even a name. The word God is nothing more than a title; a word that describes. Like the word ‘farmer’ or ‘mayor’ or ‘chairperson.’

If we see God only as God, then we are right to think that doctrines about Him are impractical, because we see Him as impersonal.

But our heavenly Father, with His Son, in the Holy Spirit are not impersonal, uninvolved, detached; or cold and uncaring about what’s going on with us now.

Our heavenly Father, with His Son, in the Holy Spirit are persons. Persons who truly care for us, especially in ways we cannot see, and in ways we cannot always understand. But in our arrogance, we not only want to understand, we insist that we must understand, we must see, we must grasp what God is doing, and why, and how it will all work out. And when we can’t, then we take matters into our own hands, because we feel not that God has failed us, but that the creed doesn’t fit the deed we are sure needs to happen.

But there we go again. Seeing only God. Talking only about God. But if we can wave aside the idea of God, we will see more clearly our heavenly Father, with His Son, in the Holy Spirit. Persons. Persons we can talk to. Persons who present themselves to us. Persons whose presence warms our hearts and soothes our spirit and calms our nerves. And, above all else, Persons who love us by giving themselves entirely for us and into us.

Love as a person. Not a feeling. Not a concept. Not even an action. But Love as a person. For the Father is love. The Son is love. The Holy Spirit is love. Not three different kinds of love. Not three different loves. But Love. The Love that creates, that sacrifices, that reaches out, that embraces—not for itself, but for you; for me; for us.

I’m sure you noticed what I just did. You noticed that love is not an idea, but action. Love never sits still. Love is never inactive. And Love Himself—the love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that Love always works for our benefit.

The Three Persons are constantly on the move—not to be busy within doing something, or to put themselves out there, or to be involved. The Three Persons are constantly on the move in order to draw us closer to them. But they act in ways we might not always comprehend.

  • The Father is Love on the move by standing at the window waiting for us to see the wisdom of returning to His warm embrace.
  • The Son is Love on the move by seeking us diligently, offering to carry us and heal us and feed us.
  • And the Holy Spirit is Love on the move by renewing willing hearts, by reviving our person, and by transforming our lives from the core outward.

To transform hearts—to convert them from fear-filled abuse, self-serving control, impersonal indifference, and frantic busy-ness—to transform takes time. And effort. And, in the end, only love. Not the word love or the demand to love, or the hope of love. But the Persons who are Love. And most especially, the Holy Spirit who pours the Father’s Love generously and abundantly into cold or dehydrated hearts in order to warm, bend, moisten, and enliven them.

It is this Love in action, this Love that is administered by the Father’s Spirit, this Love that only the Holy Trinity is and can truly give—it is this Love, and none other, that changes meanness into mercy; that moves fear toward trust; and that transforms self-serving individuals into a healthy, caring community.

This Love which is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—this is the only love that truly exists; the only love that is truly loving; and so the only love which can be offered through us to another. All other loves fail. But the love that God is, is the love that He gives to heal us—us, as in you and me; and us, as in the world.

When we are exasperated and impatient, we hurry love, forcing our needs on love, trying to make love do what we want. But we are warned: “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” For the Love who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—He knows when best to act, and how best to warm indifference, and where best to shape our fervor. The Love who is Three Persons—they are most willing to place their left hand under your head and embrace you with their right hand. (Song of Songs 8)

Such loving embrace, a high-minded theology and an impersonal God cannot give. But a Person welcomes, accepts, supports, and holds with care those who seek Him, those who are drawn to Him, those who truly wish to rest in Him. And in that Love of the Father given by His Spirit—in that Love we truly are enabled to transform others even as we attract them by our holy lives, just as we have been attracted in love to the Holy Blessed Trinity; to whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

14 June 2020

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Standing With The Mistreated

These past few days I’ve had on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers my former parishioners at the Lutheran parish I served for 11 years in Detroit; the many fine clergy and laity from Protestant and Catholic parishes that I worked with when I was involved in community organizing and building houses; the students I taught and families I worked with in inner-city Milwaukee; some of the students at the Catholic high school where I taught for 9 years; the Orthodox laity in Detroit that I knew who were involved with the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black; and my nephew and his mother.

All of these persons have at least two things in common: they are African American, and they are friends and family.

These days have brought a spotlight to the fear they walk with daily; a fear that many described to me through the years. It’s not the fear of being different, but the fear of being treated differently. Not the fear of what they do, but the fear that when they do they will automatically, or unthinkingly, be judged as a menace or a problem or a threat. Not the fear to speak out, but the frustration of not being heard. It’s the fear deep in their bones that they are less than human, that they must be ‘kept in their place,’ and that their contributions to society have no value. And, regardless of the make-up of their community, they walk and drive the streets with a visceral fear of police and of being mistreated by certain unrestrained police officers.

These are not fears I’ve heard about from the media or from a distance. These are fears and anxieties that I’ve heard when I have sat in living rooms, at parish gatherings, in classroom discussions, and through tears in one-on-one conversations. The afraid don’t rush into these conversations, and they don’t speak quickly and openly. But they will speak once you’ve earned their trust by taking seriously their fears, recognizing their particularity, treating them with dignity, and listening to them as brothers and sisters, as wise men and women—as humans.

Part of the frustration and anger we’ve seen expressed in these past few days is that of my friends and family; and those whom we too often put unconsciously or deliberately in their ‘box.’ Regardless of what we may individually think, their fears need to be heard, acknowledged, and not swept aside. And persons of color that we know, that we speak with, need to hear clearly and directly from us that we do not condone violence or threats of violence against them.

I have another nephew who is a police officer in Florida. And we have several law enforcement personnel in our parish, as I’ve had in all the parishes I’ve been blessed to serve. These friends and family—they’ve also been on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers these past few days. These are good men and women who take seriously protecting the lives and rights of others, and who show dignity and respect in their service.

And like my black friends, these days have brought a spotlight to the fear they also walk with daily: a fear that they will be judged or maligned by the actions of those they quickly condemn.

Both groups have sat side by side in churches I’ve served, in graduation parties I’ve attended, and at my family reunions. In fact, some are both African American and in law enforcement. And while they disagree on several things, both groups agree that police brutality of every kind must be not merely condemned but eradicated; that police tactics that seek to harm or disable should be used only in extreme circumstances after all other measures have been exhausted; and that, in every case, the dignity of the individual person must be maintained.

Both groups also agree that the protection and sanctity of every life, from conception to natural death, is vital and inseparable from Christian morality. And that this sanctity means more than keeping hearts beating. It also means uplifting and supporting so that they live better here. But more so, sanctity of life means that we see that the life of each person, and our own life, is intimately and inseparably tied to Christ the Life of all the living. So we protect and fight for the life of each person because in each person we see Christ.

These truths are truly tested when the least, the overlooked, the berated, and the marginalized receive an undue proportion of mistreatment and abuse. Whether here in America or in the Middle East and Turkey or elsewhere, intimidating tactics force not just the mistreated but all who look like them to look over their shoulder in fear, and to lose their voice. And when others don’t stand with them, then they come to expect that no one cares.

Standing with those in need does not mean attacking. Violence doesn’t assuage, but rather incites more violence. All forms of violence are against the Christian ethic. This includes words spoken or typed in anger, against the stranger or friend on Facebook or even against people we love in our own family and parish. Angry and extreme words are acts of violence which do more lasting and deep-seated harm than other forms of violence. And words of hate-filled anger reveal a violent heart for which we must repent (which has two parts: confession and change).

Standing with those who are afraid, and who have seen their greatest fears come to life on TV means, first of all, listening to individuals in their homes, businesses and coffee shops. It means hearing the fears of African Americans (as well as others); and being open to changing your attitude as well as your thinking. Then your offer of support is authentic, and is aimed at real individuals instead of labeled people. And offering support includes support for material needs, for emotional well-being, and for inalienable rights. These rights, as we know, are God-given. And they are rooted in a truth that we Christians hold dear: that each of us, from best to worst, from least to greatest, have been made in the image of God.

Christ Jesus speaks to this truth when He reveals the questions we will be asked at our last end. He asks not about doctrines we can recite, but doctrines we have lived. Has our faith been seen in our morality? Is our creed lived out when we keep the Lord’s Commandments? Are we doers of the Word of mercy and kindness, and not merely hearers?

Christ’s answer is that, for our own salvation, we need to seek true and lasting justice, and live for all, regardless of our own experience, politics, or fears. That’s easy to do when it comes to a bag of food or writing a check. But living for all also means sitting, listening, and working for the good of those who live in fear and who have faced trauma and mistreatment.

How we live for another will take a different shape for each of us, given our unique circumstances. But individually, and together, this is a life that we must regularly learn and re-learn, and dedicate ourselves to. For we, who are baptized into Christ, are called to live no longer for ourselves but for those who need us most, confident that in these ways we are living for Christ.

At least in our parish, and especially at this time, I invite a conversation among us. Not a conversation to persuade or win people over to our side, but a conversation where we begin to listen to each other: our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, our challenges, our opportunities. Such a conversation, if done with open and honest hearts and attended with prayer, will both strengthen our parish and will show each of us how to engage in meaningful conversations with others we meet.

Rev Msgr John W Fenton

Resource: Fr Paul Abernathy on Racial Reconciliation

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This Week’s Fast

Unique to the Western tradition are the “Embertide” fasts. These fasts occur quarterly, and encompass Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for the appointed four weeks. Those weeks are: the third week in Advent, the first full week in Lent, Pentecost week, and the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14).

During the Embertide, and most fittingly during Pentecost week, these were days when the entire community joined the candidates who were to be ordained on Pentecost Saturday. Those men selected to be made deacons or priests would fast and pray on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday before ordination.

In thanksgiving for this gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and in solidarity with these men, the whole Church both fasts and prays for those whose lives are re-ordered to deliver to the faithful the mystical and life-saving gifts of God.

The faithful pray for the Spirit’s grace both upon the men who will be ordained, and upon the whole church so that she may increase and her members may grow in faith and holiness. Our Lord’s Church cannot grow in faith or holiness without His sacred ministers. Their ministry is to deliver His gifts—the sacred mysteries—which unite us to Christ, seal us with His Spirit, heal our bodies and forgive our souls, and strengthens our life in and with each other until we together attain the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.

But there is something more that is revealed in this Ember Day practice. The whole Christian community fasts and prays (while only some are being ordained) because this Holy Sacrament—unlike all the sacred mysteries—centers the Christian parish family. That is the essence of this sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, puts it this way:

If each man [or woman] is to find in Christ his own life, if Christian engineers find in the Church what it means to be a Christian engineer, if a Christian novelist finds in the church the idea of what is Christian art, if a Christian father and a Christian mother find in the Church the essence of Christian parenthood, there must be someone in the center of the community who, just as Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone else can find his way.

Liturgy & Life

In practical terms, this means that the priest is the one who re-presents Christ; that is, who repeatedly makes Christ present. And it is the same with the deacon: he also presents Christ again and again.

The significant difference between the priest and deacon is that the priest’s primary focus is making present Christ’s compassion and mercy for the soul (i.e., through the sacraments and visitations), while the deacon’s primary emphasis is making present Christ’s compassion for the body (i.e., through material assistance and prayer).

These roles are clearly demonstrated in the Divine Liturgy: both when the deacon reads the Gospel, and when the priest dispenses the Eucharist, leads the prayers, and gives the blessing. In these instances, the deacon and priest first proclaim “Christ is in our midst” (“The Lord be with you”) before exercising their specific ministry. And the faithful acknowledge this whenever they respond, “And with thy spirit”—that is, and with the Spirit who was given to you in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Likewise, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is exactly that: a re-ordering of the life of the ordained man. No longer does that man have a “private” or “individual” life. No longer can he make decisions based solely on what is best for himself, his health, his prosperity or success, or even his family. And no longer can he set aside, even when “vacationing” or on his “day-off,” his duty and responsibility to serve at the altar or pray the prescribed prayers.

In a very real sense, then, the ordained man is “under orders.” In every moment, he must “become all things to all men.” He must “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” For his life is no longer his own, but is offered up as Christ gave Himself completely as a self-offering for men.

This is why Holy Orders is a sacrament which conveys the grace to bolster and sustain those who are ordained. And perhaps you see why it is both good and necessary for the whole Church to join in the fasts and prayers—not only for the men who will be ordained, but even more so for the priests and deacons who now serve. For by your fasting, you remember the sacrifice; and by your prayers, you support and encourage them in being faithful to their orders.

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Prayer is Not Nothing: Pentecost Homily

For nine days the Holy Apostles and 120 others are in the upper room praying. From the outside, it looks like the ascension of Christ has left them bewildered, lost, and timid. It looks like they’ve withdrawn, that they are isolating themselves from the world and the world’s events. From the outside it looks like the Holy Apostles and the 120 others are doing nothing.

But prayer is not nothing. In fact, gathering to pray is what Christians do when they are waiting on God. Waiting not on God’s special word or guidance, or for Him to reveal His will. That sounds too much like God being our server, our waiter. But when we pray to our Father, we are children waiting for Him to know and see and do what is best.

“I waited patiently for the Lord.” That is Our Lord’s prayer, penned by King David. “I waited patiently.” In prayer. And here’s what we say: “O Lord, let it be thy pleasure to deliver me: make haste to help me, O Lord.” We’re not making demands, but entering into a conversation in love, asking our Lord, when He sees that it is good, to act for the benefit of all others. In our impatience, we beg our Father to make haste, to act quickly. But we are also content with the timing and the means He chooses.

Ask the faithful who gathered in Otranto or Lepanto in the 15th and 16th centuries. These cities were under attack. The soldiers and men of the city acted boldly to defend the city. And the rest did not cower in fear. They went into their churches to pray. For prayer is not nothing. And prayer does not have to be an act of fear. It can be an act of courage. In Otranto, the courage of prayer led to the martyrdom of all those praying in the church. The Lord acted by embracing the sacrifice and prayer of the faithful. In Lepanto, more than the tactics and bravery of the soldiers, more than human power and might, the courage of prayer led to the defeat of the Ottoman army.

Prayer does not give us the excuse to do nothing. Because prayer is not nothing. And, more than we believe, prayer accomplishes greater things than our voices or our actions.

True prayer. Prayer that is not an act of desperation or an act of last resort. But prayer that is an act of faith and love. The trust that God does care and will act. And the love which sacrifices our ideas of how things oughta go as we wait patiently for the Lord to act.

Not a one-off prayer. Not a quick ‘help me Jesus’ prayer. But a true, earnest, from the heart prayer. A prayer that begins with, and borrows the words of Jesus in the Psalms, and then builds on them both to ask God to help us see and understand what He is doing; and then also waits patiently for the Lord to act. Confident that He knows both the means and the time better than we, in our short-sighted view.

That’s what the Holy Apostles and 120 others are doing for nine days in the upper room. They’re not wringing their hands, unsure what to do next. They’re not indifferent. They are praying. They are patiently waiting for the Lord to act.

And Our Lord hears our prayers. And He acts. On His timetable, not ours. When He has arranged persons and events to the greatest advantage. Our Lord will not be pushed by our pushiness, or persuaded by our demands. Which is why prayer is an act of faith. And love. The faith that is sure God will come through when He determines; and the obedient love which follows where He leads.

The Apostles and faithful saw this prayer of faith and love, this patient waiting, when they looked back on the Passion of the Christ. In that moment, as Christ was being brutalized and executed, the Apostles could see nothing but their fear. And their impatience drove them away from their Lord. And led to despair and apathy. “They forsook Him and fled.” Not just physically. They also fled emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; into themselves, into their own fears. For these Apostles could not believe, they would not believe, that Jesus’ prayer in the garden had led Him (and them) to that moment. But now more than 40 days later, with the hindsight of faith, immersed in conversation with their Lord for nine days—now they saw where the prayer of faith and love leads; that the dark struggle of faith emerges into the light when immersed in prayer.

These days of prayer; these days of patiently waiting for the Lord to act; these days which seemed over-long—these days give the Holy Apostles and the 120 others the courage and boldness they needed. Not just to speak, but to keep speaking in the face of threats. Not just to stand up for a truth or principle, but to stand within Truth Himself, within the One whose outstretched arms on the cross embraced even these men and women who had fled when He most needed them; who had doubted and wouldn’t see His deliverance; and whose unbelief and hardness of heart He rebuked just before He ascended.

The answer to these serious prayers of the 12 plus 120 led trembling men to acts of great boldness. The answer was the Holy Spirit who gave girls as well as boys, the married and the unmarried, the slave as well as the free,  the courage to demonstrate, even in the face of hostility, their faith in the risen Christ which was active in their love for all humans, whether old or young , male or female, Jewish or gentile, slave or free, rich or poor. For the gospel does not speak only to certain people. It points out sinful actions, but it does not condemn. It judges right from wrong, but it does not seek vengeance. The gospel seeks to welcome all—all—into the embrace of the holy church.

The unity this Spirit delivers invites and urges us to bear with one another in love. Which means to bear with the bearable; to stand, sit, and kneel beside those whose views we can’t embrace. Because the Holy Spirit unites us, not in an agreed set of propositions or ideals or viewpoints. Rather, the Holy Spirit is given to unite us together in Christ Himself. And, since we have received that Spirit—since the Lord’s Spirit testifies to our spirit—this then should also be our goal: “bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

The prayers of many have led us to today. Perhaps your prayers, like mine, have faltered during this long Lent. Perhaps we have been so caught up in ourselves and our own emotions that we’ve wasted this 80-day gift that the Lord has given us to draw nearer to Him.

Whether diligent or lax, whether faithful or apathetic, today let us lean without hesitation on the prayers of the Holy Apostles and the other 120. They prayed for the Spirit to gather Christ’s Church. And now, even with limitations, we are gathered.

Let all of us enter, therefore, into the joy of the Lord. Whether first or last, whether wavering or confidence—receive your reward. Those that have fasted and those that have disregarded the fast, today all is forgiven. Those that have been judgy and those that have been compassionate: today Our Lord welcomes you. The table is rich-laden. Feast royally on the Lord who gives His Body and Blood to unite, to sanctify, and to increase your faith in Him and your love for all humankind.

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Truth’s Spirit: A Homily

What we are tempted to see as defeat, is really victory. What we tend to believe is the end, is really the beginning. What we are sure will undo us, really hides our salvation. The grave that announces the end is really the gate to unending and more abundant life. And the overwhelming darkness that we fear, truly can usher in the splendor and warmth of the true Light. This true Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it; for this true Light gives light to everyone coming into the world.

This is the Spirit’s testimony. It is not his truth, or a truth. Truth Himself is conveyed and delivered to us by Truth’s Spirit. The Spirit of Truth reveals, unmasks, and presents the One who is Truth. That is what Jesus means when He speaks both of Himself and of His Spirit by saying, “The Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.”

Yet Truth’s Spirit’s testimony is not mere words. Just as it is not mere propositions. For the Spirit is also called the Comforter: the One who comforts.

The Spirit comforts us by declaring forthrightly that the victory in this combat stupendous remained with Life; the reign of death has ended.

But more than just declaring and proclaiming and preaching, this Spirit comforts us also by giving—by giving into us the Life that death tried to kill; and by giving into us the Love that hatred wanted to murder.

In their historical context, the disciples need to hear these words. Jesus is about to be betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed. “These things will also happen to you,” says the Mentor to his followers. “The world will do to you what they are doing to me. Because the world hated Me before it hated you. And so it’s hatred of you is continued hatred of Me.”

Jesus needed to make sure His disciples understood this so that they would not be taken by surprise; so that they could see the context of their own suffering; so that they could maintain, endure, remain, and persevere.

Jesus needs to make sure that we hear these same words. Not because torture and execution are imminent. Not because people are out there trying to keep us from being Christian. But because we sometimes revert to a persecution, martyr complex. When we do, we lose heart and our love grows cold as frustration and adversity and hardship arise.

Most importantly, like the disciples, we need to hear about the Comforter, and the Truth He delivers into us, because we tend to believe that death is gaining the upper hand; that life is tenuous and frightening; that there is so much to be fearful about; that the ground keeps shifting beneath us; and that things will never get to better.

Our minds go there too quickly. And our spirits too often follow—or sometimes lead us—to the point of despair or indifference or rebellion.

It’s not that we need to be reminded that there will be a better day. It’s that we need hope—the hope the Spirit gives, the hope that is within the Spirit’s comfort, the hope that is tangible and authentic and digestible—we need that hope once again. If our bodies are frail, these days our spirits also seem more frail. They seem too ready to collapse, believing that God has forgotten us or that we don’t matter or that no one cares.

The Spirit’s comfort, the Spirit’s hope, is that we do not fight alone. In fact, we do not fight at all. The fight has been fought. The victory has been won by Another, and He has given that victory completely to us. So there’s really nothing to fear. Life has defeated death, so death cannot and will not end us. Christ Himself has undermined anything that can cause death. And Our Lord has paid for and redeemed everything in us our devils claim we’re guilty of.

Knowing this, for me—and perhaps for you—the frustration and tension remain. The anxiety and nervousness still rise. The feeling of unworthiness still sits heavy.

The Spirit’s comfort, the Spirit’s hope does not dismiss these feelings, these thoughts. Truth’s Spirit counters them with the Truth that Love Himself embraces us at our worst, welcomes us when we can’t welcome ourselves, and holds us when we are undone. And, while doing that, Love Himself then covers and chases away all the demons that frighten, all the passions that beset us.

Truth’s Spirit comforts us by speaking Truth Himself into us. Truth’s Spirit comforts us by speaking Hope Himself into us. And the hope is this: that God’s got us. That His Son has trampled down the path that we now get to trod. And we get to tread this path because this is how we follow in the footsteps of Christ; and this is the path we need to walk so that we attain that heavenly joy that our loved ones and forebears are now tasting.

To re-speak this comfort, this Truth, is the Spirit’s role. To help us believe Truth by continually bringing Him to our remembrance: that is also the Spirit’s role.

And our role is both to believe, and then to permit the Spirit to align ourselves with Christ, who is Truth. Not to proclaim ‘my truth,’ but to discard it knowing it’s incomplete, feeble, self-serving. To embrace Truth in place of ‘my truth’: that the Holy Spirit helps and guides us to.

Of course, we can fight back and resist. But the Spirit will continue to return, gently and lovingly, leading us back to Truth.

This loving, comforting Spirit—this is the Spirit who comes to us; the Spirit we have received. Having Him, we can support each other in suppressing the urge to strike back, to give into our worst self, and to lash out at those we love.

By our prayers for one another, we can support each other to let Christ live through us. Then will we be enabled and empowered to be good stewards; to minister to each other with kindness and graciousness; and to find the peace that subdues our frustration.

And it works the other way also: the more we help each other pursue compassion and benevolence; the more we use hospitality without griping or blaming; the more we sacrifice the way we think things ought to be—the more we will see Christ and the Truth that He is.

That we might be strengthened and comforted against the spirit of dread, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; and let us consider one another, and encourage compassion and kindness in ourselves as well as in others; comforting one another with the Spirit of Truth; to whom, with the Father and the Son, belongs all glory, honor and worship, throughout all ages of ages.

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