Breaking Through Broken

Has the coronavirus broken you—your habit of prayer, your attendance at Mass (either in person or via livestream), and your desire for the Holy Sacraments. Has it made “living-room church” normal because it’s easier, convenient, less of a hassle?

As a result, has COVID also broken your patience, your optimism and hope? Has it caused you to be more judgy, and driven you away from those who don’t fit your ideas? Has it isolated you and driven you more and more into yourself, and thereby? Has it created in you an “us against them” and a “me against the world” mentality?

Perhaps some of these notions were always there, as tiny seeds of vice, embedded deeply within your soul. But before this pandemic, we were able to bury or even cut off the roots of these ungodly feelings and desires. For we interacted with each other, and with many other people, and so realized that everything is actually much more complicated than we think it is right now. And the way we learned that is from our conversations, our relationships, with others.

But now, even if we are able to see others in person or via Zoom, we are forced to live more with ourselves. We feel cut off and alone, because we’ve been taught to think that others can hurt us—even our closest family and friends, even those whom we love in our parish. And we fear that they may threaten not just our health but also our deeply-held ideals.

We feel cut off and alone because this pandemic has taught to think that others can hurt us—even our closest family and friends, even those whom we love in our parish.

Ideals, values, our way of seeing ‘truth,’ our view of what is best and good—all of this needs to be challenged in order to sharpen, shape, and modify us. And as we are shaped by our interaction with each other, our compassion rises above our prejudice; our love tamps down our fear; our empathy reduces our fear.

That might be, then, how we’ve been broken. The pestilence that has shifted us to see friends as enemies. The restrictions—good and necessary as they have been—have unwittingly constricted our soul.

Honestly consider, then, the several questions that I raised in the first two paragraphs of this essay. For these may reveal the ways that the devil is taking advantage of this virus.

And then ask yourself one more question: how am I taking advantage of this time, this challenge, this shift from what I thought was normal?

Wherever you are in this spectrum, know that St Michael’s Church is always open for you, always ready to embrace you, always available to help you. Not just on Sundays. But during the week—with daily Mass, with private prayer in the church, with individual conversation, with online gatherings.

I promise to do all I can to make sure you are listened to, and your voice heard. But more importantly, you will find here what you’ve always sought since the day you first arrived in this place: the kindness and mercy of Our Lord Jesus which heals what is broken, and gives hope where there is fear and restlessness.

May the Love of God be within each of us.

Rev Msgr John W Fenton

Read More

The Giving is the Sacrifice

Patronal Feast Homily

What a wonderful patron we have! Like all the angels, St Michael doesn’t focus on our sins, or the ways we divide up others, or how we so often lose control of our passions. And he doesn’t get distracted by all the noise—the outside clamor, the breathless media uproar, the social media racket, or the disquiet in our own head. None of this throws him off-balance. None of this creates a scintilla of anxiety. None of this sidetracks or confuses or frustrates St Michael or any of the holy angels.

That’s because the holy Archangel is single-minded. All that really matters is simultaneously worshiping God and serving us. And our patron’s ministry is protecting and defending us from the malice and snares of the devil. He’s focused on leading you safely into the life of the world to come. Nothing else matters, except your well-being, your relationship, your communion in God.

Serving Our Lord by serving us—that’s our patron’s mission. Sacrificing every ounce of “what’s-in-it-for-me.” And thinking not about his own strategy, his own tactics—but simply executing the will of God for the good of another: that’s what our holy patron is all about.

And we keep him busy. Because we are so prone to flip things around and inside out.

Think about it: we honestly believe that the most important thing about this Mass is what we do—our singing, our ability to hear, whether we stand or sit. And I admit, I get caught up in that as well, thinking that the words I’m speaking now must impact you because that’s what you’ll take away from today’s Mass.

In point of fact, the core of the Mass is not at all what we do, but what God gives us in His Son. And learning something or hearing we’re not so bad is not the point of the Mass. The Mass opens to us the kingdom of heaven. It helps us see Christ in His Body and Blood. It gives us the weapon of silence so that we can fight our passions by quieting our restless bodies and minds. Peace and quiet, silence and inner tranquility—that is our greatest weapon against Satan, our flesh, and the world’s clamoring.

For this reason, the heart of the Mass is not the homily, but the Canon of the Mass—that long prayer that I say quietly, so that you have at least each week to silently marvel and revere and consider in awesome fear that we can dare to approach the merciful Father, and receive into our soiled and stained temples Our Lord’s pure and immaculate Body and Blood.

And think about it: we honestly believe that our prayers are a show of support; and that praying, or worse yet refusing to pray for someone, actually affects, impresses, and nudges God, or the nation, or someone else in a particular direction.

In point of fact, Truth Himself tells us to pray, not so that we change God or to support others, but because we need to remember that we’re not in control; that everything depends on Our Father’s mercy. We pray to recall that Our Lord gifts us with everything—everything—we have. And we pray to keep in mind that the Lord’s will is not capricious or fickle; but that always, in every instance, even in the worst moments, the Lord is getting His way—in ways that we can’t even see are actually good and righteous.

And think about it: we honestly believe that we can judge who is deserving, or not deserving, of our smile, our kind words, our attention, our pennies, our help. As if what God has freely given to us, showered upon us, blessed us with—is ours to play god with.

In point of fact, we have all—everyone one of us—fallen short. “None is righteous, no, not one.” We are as vulnerable to rebel against love as we are prone to see and hold onto only our ideas of fairness and justice. So we judge and attack and belittle those who don’t share our view. But no one really understands or sees what another person is going through. God sees, the angels see—which is why the divine response to the world’s problems befuddles us. And so we judge God our Father instead of trusting that He’s already got it all worked out.

Instead of our faulty justice, we need to show sympathy. Instead of correction, we need to forgive. Instead of condemnation, we need more friendship. Friendship that stubbornly loves and helps and cares for the loved ones who push us away.

That’s what St Michael and the holy angels do. Even when we do and say and see and hear shameful things—things that make our Guardian Angel blush and weep—even in our most disgusting moments, St Michael the Archangel leads the fight for our souls. For even though we can’t see it, or don’t see it, or won’t see it—spiritual beings are fighting over you. Over your soul.

And so the angels and especially St Michael step in to show us what God’s love for us, what God’s love in us, what God’s love through us—what God’s love looks like

It looks like putting to death your ideas of justice, killing my thoughts of who’s deserving, and drowning our narratives and identity and carefully crafted truths.

Equally important, love of God looks like loving especially the person who is nastiest, praying especially for the politician we’re sure is the worst, and being merciful especially to the person whose values we hate.

Isn’t that Christ on the cross? It’s not just Jesus dying. It’s Him taking on all the hatred we’ve ever felt, all the prejudice we’ve ever denied practicing, all the abuse we’ve ever thrown at another, and all the jugdiness we’ve ever thought. Taking all that into Himself; enduring all our hatred; swallowing all our bitterness—all so that He might embrace us yet again; and not turn His back on us, but transform us by His undying love for us.

God in Christ by the cross works life through death, goodness through brutality, greatness through humility, love through hatred, empathy through prejudice. And His greatest desire is to do that not just through His Son, but also in and through you and me.

That’s what turn the other cheek looks like. That’s what St Paul’s doing when he urges the Romans to pray for Nero. And that’s what it looks like when disciples pick up Christ’s cross and follow Him: They turn the world upside down by loving hatred to death.

And that’s why St Michael and the holy angels fight. They fight because they see what we can really be. They fight because they believe that our Father did right by sending His Son to become vulnerable, weak, death-filled—like us, in order to transfigure us.

For the angels fight for the good of everyone. Not just the good people, or the people who worship the Holy Trinity. St Michael leads the holy angels for the good of everyone and everything that God has created. For all creation matters. And Jesus lays down His life on the cross for everyone and everything. You know the words: ‘God so loved the world (not just the good people, and not just the humans)—He loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.’

The giving is the sacrifice. The sacrifice of self, and especially the killing of your own will. St Michael sees this sacrifice by Jesus and leads the angels to imitate it. And so “they conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, because they loved not their lives even unto death.”

So we have a great and wonderful holy patron. A leader who focuses on what matters most—the Lord and His mercy. A leader who shows us that our life is a daily sacrificing of our will and passions. And a leader who strengthens us both to be vulnerable children, and to aid and assist all, even the most repulsive, since we are, everyone of us and altogether, the people St Michael defends and truly wants to lead to the bosom of our heavenly Father; to whom with His Son, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Read More

Twin Brothers & Dropsy

Luke 14.1-11

Twin brothers, born in Arabia, were excellent physicians. They refused to charge their patients. They offered their doctoring skills for free. And they were not prejudiced. They respected and treated every person, regardless of color, status, religion, or race. They welcomed all as Christ. They believed that everyone they touched, everyone they helped, everyone that came to them, was no different than Jesus Himself. And so respect, not shame. Mercy, not judginess. Compassion, not meanness. Assistance, not fear. That’s how they treated each person.

Because of this, two things happened. First, they did not shy away from saying that they were Christian, and that their love of Christ compelled them to take not one penny for their services. And their love attracted more and more of the hurting and dying. They were attracted, not to these twin brothers, but to the love of Christ: a love for Jesus which compelled these two men to love all with real, genuine, authentic love.

Secondly, these brothers were maligned, insulted, harassed, persecuted, literally crucified, and then beheaded. For not taking the easy way. For not backing away from those in need. Because they loved Christ. And because their love moved them not to treat anyone differently.

Definitely, these brothers took sides. They sided with Christ. Assuredly, these brothers were defiant. They defied any attempt to back away from the marginalized. Most certainly, these brothers protested. They protested every attempt to set us against them; to see anyone as someone to be written off.

These twin brothers were St Cosmas & St Damian, whom the Church remembers with great affection today. We ask them to pray for us, that we may be delivered from all evils that beset us, especially the evil of pride and ego, of arrogance and conceit.

For at the heart of every good deed that Ss Cosmas & Damian performed—at the heart of it all was humility. A humility that refused to threaten, to bully, to be impatient. A humility that refused to take offense, that refused to be sensitive to the meanness of others and insensitive to others needs. A humility that was poised in their skill, but more confident in the Lord’s will.

And look where that humility led them. To humiliation. And being humiliated while they hung naked on a cross.

Yet they did not flinch. And they did not fear. And they did not flee from beheading. For Ss Cosmas & Damian knew that the Lord who helped them heal others would affix again their heads, and heal their wounds, and lift them up, and exalt them. Just as He does for everyone who humbles himself for Christ’s sake. Just as Jesus had done for His own Mother. For she said, “He has put down the mighty and lifted up the lowly.”

The lowly and the lowliest are the ones Our Lord reaches out to; the ones He especially embraces. Not because they are downtrodden or in need of a self-esteem boost. But because humility is the way of life for those who pick up their cross daily and follow Christ.

Most of us are humbled, and humiliated, when we suffer the indignities of a debilitating illness. When our self-sufficiency and independence is restricted. When we lose our dignity by having someone care for us, especially in our most private moments.

Consider, then, the man with dropsy—what we today call edema. We meet this man in today’s Gospel. Because of his illness, this man is humbled and feels demeaned. No doubt, he is despised and rejected, a man acquainted with pain and sorrow, a man who is embarrassed and shamed because he looks different, moves differently, and is not able-bodied. This man is one of those that Ss Cosmas & Damian would treat. Because he is a man that Jesus considers, heals, and cares for.

What is ironic is that this man’s illness is a symbol for pride. His swollen tissues make many think of those with swollen heads. His body’s insistence on retaining water looks no different than a proud person’s insistence of retaining his own puffed up opinion of himself, and his politics, and his lifestyle, and his religiousity. All at the expense, at the belittling, of anyone who dares to disagree.

Isn’t pride—making sure I get mine, that others take notice and respect me, that my voice is heard, that others love me as I am—isn’t that our greatest spiritual affliction? And doesn’t that pride show itself when we demean, when we sneer at those whom we are sure are wrong? Or worse or less than us?

Perhaps if our humility was on display, as it was for the man with dropsy; perhaps if we could feel our head swell, every time we rush to take the best place and push others aside—then we might practice true humility.

To teach the Pharisees who can’t see or feel their pride, Jesus reduces the swelling for the afflicted man. And with this miracle, He announces that He will assuredly stand beside all those who wish to put away their pride, those who desire to be done with impatience and shoving themselves to the front. And more so, Our Lord will promote and encourage those who embrace the gift of humility—a gift many of us despise, but which the holy saints like Cosmas and Damian hold onto for dear life.

In this Gospel reading, as in most episodes like this, the Church wants us to see that we are very little different from the Pharisees. That the sin that kills us is the pride we refuse to see, and confess, and reform. And, in that way, we are also like the man with edema, a dropsy not of the body but of the heart; not in the joints but in the soul.

Yet there stand Ss Cosmas and Damian. Quick and ready with their prayers to lead us out of ourselves. To help us get out of our own way, so that we might be on the right way. And to direct us in the way of humility, even to the point of humiliation. For humiliation is the route Our Lord took when He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

And in these holy saints—and all other saints whose lives and prayers inspire us—in them stands Our Lord Himself: quick and ready with His mercy, quick and ready to deflate our self-opinion so that we might find solid ground in the worth He ascribes to us, in the value He places in us, in the hope He enlivens in us.

For that is how Ss Cosmas & Damian were able to live and die. Not by hoping in their own skill; and not by finding hope in the movements, events, and promises that cry for our attention. Rather, as the saints do, we must pin our hopes to Our Lord’s way of humility, so that we too, in Christ, may be lifted above the frustrations and fears this world brings—lifted up by Our Lord into a society, a kingdom, and a life that calms, restores, grounds, braces and settles us.

A homily for Pentecost XVI
27 September 2020

Read More

Seeing Everyone in the Eyes of One

Luke 7.11-17

When we hear of hardship, suffering, prejudice, abuse, starvation, injustice, illness, bullying, trauma, crisis, or impending death—empathy wells up in us. And it should. In fact, we would be inhuman if we didn’t feel something for those who suffer; and grossly unfeeling and thoughtless if we rejoiced in another’s hurt.

Empathy for the hurting wells up in us either because we’ve had similar situation, or because we can imagine what it would be like to endure these horrid circumstances.

But when the suffering hits close to home, when it’s a sibling or parent or close friend, then our empathy moves from sadness for them to hurting with them; from identifying with their pain to suffering with them. Suffering in the depths of our soul the suffering our loved ones suffer. And that’s what brings out true compassion. Not the compassion that is concern or uneasiness, but the compassion that heartfelt, bone-deep grief.

Both kinds of compassion are necessary and good. The compassion for the wrongs a group endures, as well as the compassion for a particular person I’m close to.

Both kinds of compassion are necessary if we are to bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

But the compassion where I truly know what you’re going through; because I’ve been there; because you’re so close to me—that’s the compassion Our Lord Jesus feels.

So when we hear, as we do today, that Our Lord was moved with compassion—it’s not that He is pained by life’s hardships or wrongs done to groups. It’s that He is hurting with each hurting person. That He actually suffers our own unique suffering with us and for us.

So Our Lord feels for a group, for all humanity, not when He sees the plight of anonymous persons; not when He hears of someone He’s never known. Rather, Our Lord immerses Himself in the suffering of all when He looks into the eyes of the hurting person who is right in front of Him. When Jesus sees the person He’s sitting with, standing near, talking to, reaching out to—then He sees every one of us.

So the Lord sees the widow who is in a daze, trudging off to bury her son. Most certainly, a heart-rending scene for anyone who feels anything. And our Lord can certainly feel that general compassion—that compassion borne of empathy and understanding—because in the woman’s face, in her tearful eyes, He can see His own holy Mother who will soon, very soon, be walking that same path as a widow while her only son, dead, is carried to His tomb.

But the Lord’s compassion sees more than this scene. The Lord’s compassion is more than a reminder, more than a looking ahead. The tears flow, not for what will be but because of what He now sees.

And what Our Lord sees in the widow is every personal tragedy, every heart-rending moment, every fear and ruined future—all brought about by the disaster that occurs when one of us, and many of us together, tread the path of the first mother. When we, willfully and deliberately, prefer what we want. When we, in our weakness, give in to the belief and the certainty, that we know God better than God; that we know truth better than Truth Himself; that we know how to make life work better than the one who gave His life so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

So what Our Lord sees in the widow is the heart-breaking futility of living as if this life matters, and as if we matter most.

What Our Lord doesn’t do makes all the difference. What He doesn’t do is walk away. What He doesn’t do is make some snide remark about how we’ve ruined our life. And what Our Lord Jesus doesn’t do is throw up His hands and say, “You people aren’t worth it.”

For Our Lord is run by compassion. All about compassion. All about getting down in the pit with us, sitting with us, and then lifting us up out of the miserable mess we’ve made.

And so, what Our Lord does is approach the woman. And He says, “Let’s not weep.” And what He does it touch the coffin. And He says, “It’s now time to rise from the dead. It’s now time to come back from the grave. It’s now time to taste and see what life is really all about.”

Life is really all about Our Lord. No matter what’s going on around us. No matter all the things we can’t control. No matter how much things are falling apart. And no matter who sides with whom.

Life is really all about Our Lord. Holding fast to what He says, even when we can’t see a way out. Returning again and again to His Body and Blood, even when everything else tastes like ash in our mouths. And looking into His loving, co-suffering eyes, knowing that He’s always got us and He always gets us through—if we only use the courage and desire, the Spirit He’s given us, to follow the way of life that He is and that He leads us in.

Those words, “I say to you, arise”—they’re not just spoken to a dead man once upon a time in the city of Nain. They were spoken into you, breathed into you, implanted in the depth of your being, when you were baptized, and later chrismated, and then fed God’s Body and Blood.

Those words, “I say to you, arise”—they’re said to raise you up when you no longer feel, when you’ve lost your way, when compassion is hard, when you’re ready to give up. For these are the words the spiritual father speaks when he re-states God’s absolution in the healing Sacrament of Private Confession.

And those word, “I say to you, arise”—that is to be your daily motto. For those words proclaim that the Lord has pulled you up, and will also raise you up on the last day. For you have tasted the Lord’s goodness encased in His holy Body and Blood.

Now when you know that you arise and will arise; when those words become a statement of who you are—a raised, resuscitated, resurrected child of God just as the Son of God was raised—then you are empowered to reach out to others. For you have no fear of falling; you know you’ve been raised; and you know you won’t be left down. So then, with Christ giving you life, you will not be weary in doing good; in helping and reaching out with true deep-seated compassion to those who are downtrodden and ignored and mistreated.

By the prayers of the holy Martyr Eustace and his companions, whose resurrection was revealed in their suffering, may Our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us.

A homily for XV Pentecost
20 September 2020

Read More

Seeking the Kingdom: Homily for Pentecost XIV

Matthew 6.24-33

Anxiety and confidence. These are two masters because they can take control of our day, our heart rate, our mood, our way of seeing things. Anxiety runs us down one path. Confidence runs us down another. Anxiety says that things won’t work out. Confidence says that God’s got us. Anxiety enslaves and paralyzes. Confidence in God’s mercy frees and empowers. Anxiety pulls our head down and urges us to crawl inside ourselves. Confidence in the Lord lifts up our heart and draws us outside of ourselves to Our Lord and others.

These two masters—we cannot serve both. One we must hate. And by the word hate, I mean to turn away from, push down, ignore, and refuse to hear. The other we must love. And by the word love, I mean to embrace, internalize, and make the constant loop in our head.

Anxiety and confidence or faith in God. The two masters that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel.

Anxiety leads us to focus our thoughts on this world: bodily needs, self-preservation, acceptance by others, posturing.

Confidence in Christ leads us to understand that Our Father gives us all that we need to support this body and life; that He welcomes us as we are; and that He urges us to live outside ourselves, to live for another, and to live without being dominated by our passions: by pride, anger, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, and despair.

Despair. That’s the deadly sin that anxiety feeds. Despair. The deep-seated feeling that nothing matters, that nothing will improve, that we’re on our own and quickly sinking in the quicksand of life.

Jesus meets our despair and urges us to diligently, deliberately, daringly seek the kingdom of God. And His righteousness, His justice. A justice not that we must demand, but that He gives. A justice not about rights, but rooted in His mercy. A justice not for fleeting, momentary fixes about systems and others; but a justice that re-calibrates who we are, and urges us to love those whom we hate.

Seek the Kingdom of God. And His righteous justice.

That’s harder than it seems. For seeking the Lord, His kingdom, and His way of doing things requires that we devote our emotional, mental, and material resources toward one goal, one purpose. And seeking the Lord’s kingdom means that our fears, our desires, our family, our work, and anything else that claims our attention need to be a distant second. Nothing should stand in the way of attaining God’s kingdom.

Seeking God’s kingdom also means that we shift what ‘kingdom’ means. For we tend to locate the kingdom of God in the future, in a heavenly place, in the spiritual. When we do that, we are forgetting that the Kingdom of God is ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

The earthly manifestation and presence of the Kingdom of God is at Mass, in Private Confession and the other sacraments, and in our daily prayers. And that is what we are to seek. More than anything else—more than our anxiety, more than our convenience, more than our other things. To gather as Church, to hear the Lord’s Word in His temple, to worship the Lord in the beauty of the holiness of the saints and angels—that should be our priority, our aim, our life’s goal.

But seeking God’s kingdom doesn’t stop there. The grace we receive from Christ in His churchly kingdom transforms us—if we let it. The food of God’s own Body and Blood, the clothing of His righteousness—that lets us be royal priests, holy citizens, and people who are peculiar. Peculiar because we will not let anxiety master us. Peculiar because confidence and trust in Our Lord Jesus allows us to step out when we would rather step back. Peculiar because we are fueled not by the latest clickbait, but by the Holy Mysteries.

Seeking the kingdom of God, and the justice of His unfair mercy that He lavishes on us anxious people—seeking that relief, that respite, that rest—that is the master we need to chain ourselves to. For this master is really no master, but the Savior of ourselves, from ourselves.

13 September 2020

Read More

Living the Lord’s Mercy: Pentecost XIII homily

When we ask almighty God to give us an increase of faith, hope and charity, we are not asking Him to confirm us in what we feel is right, or to approve the decisions we’ve already made and the actions we’ve already carried out. Instead, we’re admitting that we fail in faith; that our hopes are often wrong-headed; and that our love is self-serving.

So our prayer admits

  • that we too often take matters into our own hands without patiently trusting the Lord to be our defense;
  • that our hopes and desires are usually set on gratifying our passions and what we believe is fair;
  • and that love for others—especially those who hurt us or those who hate us—our love for them is very often overcome by anger and revulsion.

And so we pray—precisely because we do not love deep down what our Lord commands. And yet we know that, apart from His bottomless mercy, we will not obtain the inheritance, the kingdom, the life He promises us.

And we pray—because we give into hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, and envy. And yet we sincerely and earnestly want to partake of the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

And we pray—because by fulfilling the lusts of our flesh, we have sinned against the Spirit and walked our own walk, and not according to the His talk. And yet we know that our only passion should be for Our Lord, and for those whom He loves. And this passion is true only as we internalize His commands about our bodies, our minds, our will, our spirit.

All Our Lord’s commands are rooted in His love for us. For this reason, our prayer must always be, “Lord have mercy.”

Those three words must always be at the heart of every prayer—no matter how many words we use, no matter how much we struggle, no matter how hard it is to live the Lord’s mercy toward others. ‘Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy’ must be our constant prayer. For if the Lord does not have mercy, then faith, hope and love vanish.

So it is the Lord’s mercy we seek when we pray.

  • A mercy that deals with us not as we deserve;
  • A mercy that squelches our anger and meanness;
  • A mercy that gives birth to true brotherly love;
  • A mercy that betters us;
  • And most of all, a mercy that gives us an increase of faith, hope and love.

Every Mass begins with “Kyrie eleison” because we are so dependent on God’s mercy. And every Mass is immersed in, and petitions the Lord to have mercy upon us. For if the Lord does not have mercy, then we are lost and the whole world ceases. But with the Lord’s mercy, there is abundant redemption and plentiful forgiveness; and in His mercy He drags us out of the pit we have dug.

Too often, however, we say, “Lord, have mercy” taking for granted His love. Or we say, “Lord, have mercy” not as a prayer, but as if we were snapping our fingers at a waiter. Or we say, “Lord, have mercy” with no understanding of what He asks of us—to live not by our will, but in His love; and to do not what we think is best, but to trust the commands He gives.

But most of all, we say, “Lord, have mercy” with little thought, and little desire, to thank Him. And too often we receive Our Lord’s mercy not as a gift, but as something we deserve. And then we forget that the Lord’s mercy is not cheap. His mercy is not like ours—a compassion half-heartedly, sometimes grudgingly given.

The Lord’s mercy cost Him the life of His Son. And you know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Yet here is what is best—even our ingratitude; even our disrespect; even our abuse of the Lord’s costly mercy does not stop His mercy, or turn Him against us. And He does not undo what He mercifully did. Just ask anyone who lives under the mercy of God’s rain and sunshine; or anyone who still breathes. Or, better yet, ask the nine lepers who did not return. Their discourteous thanklessness did not bring back their leprosy; they were still healed. So even they, in their foolish self-centeredness—even they tasted the Lord’s mercy, although they did not savor it.

But when we return again and again in praise and thanksgiving; when we sacrifice our notions, our passions and our ambitions; when we offer the Lord all we are and all we have in appreciation for the mercy He gives: then we receive from the Lord

  • not just mercy but also His blessing;
  • not just goods for the body but also goods for the soul;
  • not just the things that make for this life, but also the things that usher us safely into the Kingdom of heaven.

Ask the one leper who returns. This Samaritan cares less about being certified “clean” and returning to his family, and more about worshiping the Lord Jesus who healed him. He thinks less of what people think of him, and more of what the Lord gives Him. So he returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.

There, by that humble act, you see the Holy Spirit at work. There, you see a man who swallows his pride; who acknowledges his unworthiness; who confesses that he is undeserving of any gift from God. And there you see a person who not only appreciates, but also begins to live from the mercy he has received.

For living in the Lord’s mercy begins not by doing for others, but by receiving more and more from the Lord’s hand.

And living in the Lord’s mercy moves forward as you sacrifice yourself—and especially your sense of right and wrong—to partake in what is not rightfully yours.

And living in the Lord’s mercy is grounded in a straight-forward, no excuses confession

  • that you are no better than anyone else;
  • that the Lord should not deal kindly with you;
  • that you are the chief of sinners;
  • and that you cannot live another moment apart from the love, the forgiveness, the compassion, the strength, and the mercy that Our Lord Jesus is and gives.

As you take to heart the Lord’s mercy; as you receive it not just as an idea but as your life—then His Spirit will work in you

  • so that you are merciful just as your heavenly Father has been merciful to you;
  • so that you lay aside all grudges, all notions of revenge, all hatred, all ill-speaking;
  • and so that you live not to gratify your lusts and desires, but to walk in the Spirit with the saints, in true thanksgiving, toward His kingdom, which is your ultimate goal.

Despite our many short-comings, may the Lord continue His mercy to us, within us, and among us. And may we, as His children and heirs of His mercy, live for Him by living mercifully with each other, with all whom we meet, and especially toward those who don’t measure up to our ideal, and who hurt us or hate us.

Read More

Needing Help

Here is a truth that I’ve seen played out many, many times during my 30 years of ministry: the poor, the marginalized, the despised, the discriminated against, the unwelcomed and unwanted, and the unprivileged—those who are strange to us, whom we tend to avoid and ignore: they are usually more generous, more tender-hearted, more empathetic, and more merciful than I am, perhaps than we are. Why is this? I think it’s because they know what it’s like to be cast aside and passed over.

Certainly, we are not cold-hearted people. We can be sympathetic. We have sacrificed for others. Our heart is touched when we see suffering and injustice. As long as those in need don’t feel threatening. As long as we know, or can relate those who poorly treated. As long as we’re not too inconvenienced. And as long as our heart is not hardened or our eyes distracted by whisperings that the different will take advantage of us or don’t really deserve our help.

Certainly, we’re able to care. But caring at a distance is much easier than caring up front. Caring in a crowd seems better than caring one on one. And caring with a check or with our mouths or on social media feels safer than stooping down and holding a hand and speaking real words.

The picture Our Lord gives today is a man who’s on his hands and knees putting on bandages. Whose compassion is not re-tweeting a meme, but putting himself in harm’s way. A man who focuses on the person in front of him. Who’s not trying to save the world, but simply do whatever he must to help the one unfortunate soul whom God has given to him.

That picture is contrasted with the two men who seem so callous. They look too busy to care. Too caught up in their own causes and needs that they won’t reach out to one who doesn’t fit their picture of hurting. These two men—godly men, we’re told; good men, we must suppose—these two men leave the healing to someone else so they can pray.

We see the picture Jesus paints. We understand the picture. And we fit ourselves—or, at least, we want really hard to fit in with the Samaritan, and not be like the other two.

But the truth is that we can’t really be the help we want to be; we can’t really aspire to be the Samaritan; we can’t really minister to another until we understand that, really, actually, truly, we are the one who fell among robbers. That we are the one who is lying half dead.

How did he get there? How did the man fall among robbers?

We could blame the victim, or the circumstances, by saying that he put himself in that position by traveling the wrong road, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, with the wrong sort. But that’s not Jesus’ concern. Our Lord is not about past regrets or casting blame. He simply wants us to realize that we are the man lying their half dead. A person who needs mercy. Help from a stranger. A stranger with no reputation; who willingly became the lowest slave, the despised and rejected. We need him.

Christ Jesus is this Samaritan. And accepting help from Him means that we need to see that we need help. That we have, in whatever way, been laid low. That we’re no different than the people we talk against, the people we’re sure are ruining our society, the people whose appearance awakens a visceral reaction.

We’re no different, not because we’re the same, but because we’re human. Humans made in the image of God. And, at the same time, humans who stumble and fall; who rebel; who line up against the stranger; who shake our fist at another and say he is my enemy. We’re all, to a person, no different in our willfulness, in our meanness, in our selfishness, in our pride.

And so we all, every one of us, depend on the mercy, the kindness, the generosity of not just a Good Samaritan, but more so the Good Samaritan. Who willingly shoulders our fears and burdens. Who pours out healing that comes from deep within. Who takes care more than lectures. And who promises to return with greater and more care.

We can see this Samaritan only when we see our need for Him. When we see that He’s not the Samaritan we want, but the Samaritan we need right now. Because He alone can take us up.

And once we see that, then we can begin to be this Good Samaritan to another. Then His mercy to us flows through us. Then we’ll see that our task is not to care about all the causes, but to care for the persons whom God has placed in our paths. For helping those persons—those who are different, stranger, shunned, scorned—helping them helps us on our way to Jerusalem. In our way of salvation.

Then, and only then, will we begin to run without hesitation toward the attainment of the Lord’s promises; to whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Read More

Hearing & Speaking: Pentecost 11 homily

Mark 7.31-37

Dearly beloved:

Let us understand why the Lord God, in His wisdom, gave us ears to hear and mouths to speak. For if we do not know why we have these body parts, we will not understand the greatness of the miracle in today’s Gospel when Our Lord opens the ears of the deaf and heals the impediment of the tongue. Neither will we understand what is truly behind the rejoicing of the crowd when they exclaim, “He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.”

We might, instead, think that Our Lord Jesus has simply done another miracle. That He has added ‘healing the deaf and mute’ to the list of miracles. That He has fulfilled a prophecy, but that this prophecy and miracle has very little to do with us.

So, why did the Lord God give us ears? Not merely to hear sounds, loud and soft, beautiful and annoying. But to communicate. For conversation—real conversation—is not about talking, but about listening. The person who talks without listening hears only his own voice. And the person who hears only to argue his point is not truly listening.

To listen. That’s why God gave us ears. And to listen not to ourselves, not to my voice or yours, but chiefly and mostly to listen to Our Lord: His loving will for us; His desire to embrace Him by embracing His holy ways; and His mercy when we stray.

The Lord gave us ears to hear the Word of God and keep it. Not bury it, or shove it aside. But to internalize His Word, no matter how hard it may be for us to swallow. To let His word overrule our unruly thoughts and desires. And most of all, to let the Word that He is knit Himself to our flesh so that the Father can say, “You truly are mine; you truly are my Child. For I see that you heed what I say, and follow My way, and conform and bend your behavior, your mind, your will, your speech to align with Mine.”

The Lord gave us ears to take His Word Jesus into our heart and mind, and let His spirit reform our self-serving spirit.

Because he was jealous, as soon as the ancient foe saw our ears, he sought to obstruct them. To clog our ears. To make us deaf to Our Lord by having us focus only on words that frustrate and anger and puff us up—and so focus on words that lead us to think that what we think is really what God says.

To think that what we think is really what God says: that’s how the devil makes us tone-deaf. To others. And mostly to God. For Satan’s desire is not to turn us toward him, but merely to turn us more and more deeply into our selves. So that our causes, our needs, our rights, our experiences, our ways, our narratives, our truths are what we really hear when we say we’re listening to God and minding His Spirit.

To unstop these ears that hear only our own voice, and the voices of those who say anything but what the Lord God says: that’s why Christ came. To restore true hearing. To open our ears to hear the beauty that we so often miss. To rebuild the art of listening to Him. To heal our self-induced deafness.

Notice how Our Lord heals the deaf man in today’s Gospel. He pulls him aside from the crowd. He gets him away from the noise of so many voices. He brings him to a place of quiet, a place where we, because we’ve lost our hearing, can once again focus on Him: on His kindly mouth, on His generous words, on the love He speaks.

But it’s not enough for the Lord to quarantine us by leading us into silence. Our Lord must then stick His fingers in our ears. The same fingers by which He wrote the commandments on tablets of stone. The same fingers by which He warned King Belshazzar by writing on the plaster of the palace. And the same fingers He uses to uplift the heads of those who look down in despair, or fear, or hopelessness.

These fingers are His Spirit. The Holy Spirit who opens our ears, not to hear what we want to hear, or what we think God should say, or what others tell us God really means. This Holy Spirit opens our ears to hear what the Lord truly says to me, to you, to us:

  • That His love undoes everything we fear.
  • That His love matters more than everything else we fight for.
  • That His love, and not our many loves, is really what
    • sees us through;
    • and gives us hope;
    • and enables us to restrain ourselves;
    • and perfects and settles us as we battle our various thorns of the flesh.

These Spirit-fingers are gently yet firmly placed into the ears of each one of us. And then our ears do what they were really made to do. They begin to hear, and listen, and internalize, and live from, and find true joy in the unchanging, unbending, unerring, yet ever merciful and loving Word which is Christ Jesus.

Once hearing is restored; once our ears work as they were designed to work; then, without further ado, our mouths begin to speak like they were made to speak.

For Our Lord God did not give us mouths to gossip, or whisper, or spew hate-speech, or insult, or put others in their place. Our Lord God gave us mouths for one purpose only: to praise Him.

But praising the Lord is not at all saying the lofty and high-sounding words that we create, that flow from our undisciplined hearts and untamed lips. Praising the Lord is not gushing over God. To praise the Lord is to repeat His Word. To take what He has said, and say it back to Him again. Like children who learn to speak by mimicking the words of their parents. Like people who are so pleased when they can speak a new language by correctly repeating a few learned phrases.

To take what Our Lord says and say it back to Him again: that is the praise Our Lord wants. He says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And He delights to hear us say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He says, “I have called you by Name.” And He rejoices when we say, “Our Father.” He says, “I am the Lord who rescued you.” And He is overjoyed when He hears us say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?”

To repeat Our Lord’s word is to use our mouths for their true purpose.

  • To bless as He blesses.
  • To speak mercy and not malice.
  • To declare His truth, and eschew our self-made truths.
  • To make His words our daily prayer.

That is plain speaking. The plain speaking that the deaf man did in today’s Gospel. And the plain speaking that Our Lord asks of us after He said “Ephphatha, be opened” when we were baptized.

May Our Lord, who has opened our ears and healed our tongues, grant us His grace both to hear into our hearts and speak with our mouths the Word which He is that we love. To Whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Read More

One Thing Needful: An Assumption Homily

The one thing needful is not to despise or resist, but to welcome, cultivate, ponder, hold onto for dear life, and constantly live in the saving Word of God

  • Who became flesh
  • Who, for our sake destroyed death and the devil;
  • Who did all this so that we might live and have true life both now in Him and His Body, and most fully in the kingdom to come.

Our Lord Jesus is the one thing needful.

As we welcome, ponder and cultivate this Word of God; as we grow in Him and He in us—then by His Spirit He transforms us, not just individually but together, in His Church, as brothers and sisters related, by grace, to Our Father. To be transformed: that is our goal, Not to make it easily or unscathed through this life, but that we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head so that we all are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

This transformation into the same image of the Son; this transformation from glory to glory; this transformation by the Spirit of the Lord—this is a transformation not merely of the mind and heart, or of the soul and spirit. This transformation results in a transfiguration and glorification of our very bodies—the bodies which, by the Father’s grace, were knit together in our mothers’ wombs.

  • These are the bodies which were washed, and sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
  • These are the bodies which are now temples of the Holy Spirit.
  • These are the bodies which have now been knit together by the mystery of the Lord’s Holy Supper so that those who share in the apostolic communion may be called, and truly are, the holy catholic Church.
  • And so it is these bodies which, though sown in corruption, will be raised in incorruption; and though sown in dishonor, will be raised in glory; and though sown in weakness, will be raised in power; and though sown a natural body, will be raised a spiritual body.

Yet we are weak.

  • We live more by fear than by faith.
  • We are easily overwhelmed by our fears, by our haunting past, and by the lies and deceptions of false preachers.  
  • We are easily overcome by the anxieties of this world; by the demons that assault our mind and heart; and by thinking that fixing this decaying world is both necessary and possible.
  • We get caught up in a peace which brings no peace; and in a justice that knows no mercy.
  • All because we falsely believe that scurrying about is better than attending to wisdom.

But what shall we do? Where should our focus be? Where can we look so that we are not trapped in a utopian/dystopian cycle?

We who are weak, who easily fall prey to the devil’s lies, and who quickly succumb to our doubts and fears—the Lord knows we can argue ourselves into believing that Jesus’ resurrection will not be ours; and that His was merely another fantastic miracle. And so He gives us more that we can look to—more that will teach us and make plain to us that the one thing needful is not a waste of time, and that it will result in saving us from this body of death.

Where does Our Lord point us? To

  • the one whom all generations call blessed;
  • the one who is already the example of perfect obedience, and perfect synergy between God and man;
  • the one who willing and freely sacrificed all the things that we think matter so much;
  • the one was chosen from mankind and all creation;
  • the one who already is the icon of all the faithful, and who has taught us to say, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word”?

Without a doubt, she is a prime example of both a holy death, and what Our Lord has promised to accomplish in all those who hold to the one thing needful, as she did.

And this we know—that, like us, the Blessed Virgin Mother did not escape death. For what man can live and not see death? For it is appointed for men to die once. So, the holy Mother fell asleep peacefully in the arms of her beloved Son. Yet did she remain ensnared by death, and held captive by the grave? Holy Tradition teaches us that this vessel of God and bearer of the Life of all, without breaking any of the laws of nature, after she had died, was resurrected bodily on the third day and then ascended into the heavens. Very much like her Son.

That the Holy Theotokos was raised so quickly, so blessedly, so gloriously; and that she was raised not only from the dead but also bodily into heaven—this is taught so that we might know that Our Lord’s promise is true: that those who die trusting in the Lord are with the Lord; and that those who hear the Word of God and keep it will participate in the promised resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Now since this is true of the Blessed Virgin Mother, the image and icon of every Christian, then we also, after resting in the grave, will be raised up bodily to be with Our Lord and to live forever with Him in His kingdom.

Now we can see, in the Virgin Mother, where the one thing needful leads.

  • By the Lord’s mercy in His Spirit, we are given the capability to grasp and not ignore, we hold fast to the Word of God made flesh.
  • By the faith He gives, we are enabled to cling steadfastly to Him and walk in the life that He is and desires to live in us.
  • By His grace in the Holy Sacraments, we are given the courage and strength to avoid offending our Lord and his holy saints angels by restraining ourselves from hurtful words and immoral deeds.
  • And by the prayers of the saints, we are supported to remain true to our Father by our constant repentance and our constant striving in the Spirit to love God and have mercy on all men.

In this way, then, we not only keep the Word of God, but we also then shall also receive the Blessed Virgin’s reward. We shall be raised from the dead in our bodies with our flesh transformed and transfigured and glorified, and then lifted up to the heavenly heights, so that, with the Blessed Virgin and all the saints, we also might continue to live more fully, more completely, more perfectly and more constantly in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

Read More

Living as Children of the Light: Pentecost VIII homily

When we say “Our Father”—or, as St Paul says it, when we say “Abba Father”—when we say those words, we are stating that we are children. Actually, infants and toddlers. Who need, constantly, to be cared for. Who really have nothing of their own. Who trust implicitly that their parents will give what they need. Who think nothing about tomorrow, but live only in the present.

Toddlers, infants, children—they live solely from mercy to mercy. From the mercy given today toward the mercy given tomorrow. From the present the loving father gives to the gentle kiss and soothing words the affectionate mother generously dishes up. And from undemanded love to undeserved care.

But when we plot and plan, when we scheme and demand, when we shove our way to the front to get what we deserve—then we are no longer children filled with light. Then we are driven by our self-pleasing desires. And then we live for whatever feeds our darkened souls, and become children of the world.

Yet listen to what Our Lord says about the narcissistic children of the world: The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

This is not a compliment. Comparisons are rarely compliments. Because comparisons are hardly ever about mercy. Rather, they are about fairness. Or, most often, about getting ahead.

Children of the world who are wiser, more prudent, shrewder, than children of light. Our Lord is neither praising us nor them. He is saying that the selfish, the greedy, the mercenary expend greater energy in getting what is really nothing more than a handful of sand, than we do in striving for holiness and God’s true riches.

Think about this: how much work does just about everyone put into dying a little later. For that’s the truth of the matter. We are, almost everyone of us, afraid of dying of something: sickness, abuse, an accident, loneliness, lack of necessities. And we fear the loss of a loved one. Yet death cannot possibly not happen. It can be delayed but never eliminated. And so, everyone works hard to put off the day of death. Everyone keeps watch, digs in, bolts the doors, keeps their distance, diets and exercises, avoids toxins—not in order not to die, but in order to die just a little later.

That’s what the unjust steward is doing in today’s parable. He’s working furiously to stave off the day of reckoning. And to take care to get what, in the end, doesn’t really matter. He’s striving for what he can’t take with him hoping that he can ease himself into the grave. And in doing so, this disreputable man has forgotten the patriarch Job’s principle: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Yet instead of blessing, the steward hopes to sneak a few things—pride, comforts, self-love—past the Lord.

On the contrary, how much energy, how much desire, how much work do we expend in aiming to live forever? The cheating steward was insuring himself for an end without the beauty and love of God. Why don’t we insure ourselves for Our Father’s never-ending beauty, love, and warmth—by good and holy deeds, by the virtues of patience and humility, by prayer and self-control, by averting our eyes and curtailing our sharp judgments, and most of all by living as if the Holy Sacraments matter most.

The fraudulent steward prepared a little nest of short-term quiet and security by exercising self-serving foresight. Shouldn’t we, then, especially since we like to be called children of the light—shouldn’t we also have the foresight to live for the praise of the saints, the embrace of the angels, and the unending pleasures of the Blessed Trinity?

I don’t, I’m sad to admit, because I get so caught up in myself. And because the joys of heaven seem so distant and nebulous. And like the villain in today’s parable, it’s too easy to use all my energy on short-term happiness. And perhaps you do the same.

Yet together we have tasted Our Lord’s goodness, right here in this place. Together we’ve experienced, especially when life is hard or scary or unknown, the kindness that our heavenly Father provides, quickly and without hesitation. Together we’ve known those moments and tasted those appetizers of spiritual delights.

Let us recall, then, that we are all stewards. Our Lord has entrusted us with each other, with material blessings, with His kindness and mercy, and with other gifts. Let’s use all these, not to manipulate, but to make friends of all whom we meet, so that they may greet us in everlasting habitations.

And let us also recall that we are children—toddlers and infants—who are graced to call God ‘Our Father’ just as Christ did. And to receive from Him now, at this moment and here in this place, His care which exceeds our expectations and needs.

And as we recall who we truly are, and what we are by God’s grace, let us never stop in asking the Lord Jesus to make us grateful at all times, to recall that we are completely reliant on Him, and so to have the spirit to think and do always those things which are according to His will: who lives and reigns with His Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit: throughout all ages, world without end.

Read More