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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Seeing the Goal

The goal is attaining the kingdom of heaven. Not just individually—for that is quite selfish. But together; in families; with loved ones; and with all those who have been baptized into Christ, who deny their own agendas and rely exclusively on His mercy and kindness, and who desire nothing more than kneeling at His altar and receiving the Holy Supper of His very Self.

The goal is the kingdom of heaven. Not just escaping this life and being done with the horrors that have been done to us, together with the misery we’ve often created. But being welcomed fully and completely by God Himself, and being embraced and warmed by His no-strings-attached mercy. So not simply being delivered from now, but more importantly living as we were made and designed to live—in an intimate relationship and communion with our Maker.

The goal is attaining the kingdom of heaven. But what does that look like? There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain. For the former things—that is, the things that have frightened and sickened us, the things that have made a mess of our lives, the things hurtful and wicked that we have falsely loved—these things have passed away.

But what does this look like?

Look at Our Lord Jesus Christ as He stands on the Mount Tabor. Look at Him as He is transfigured—His clothes as white as light, and His face shining like the sun. Look at Him as He is surrounded by Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John—the key representatives of the Old and New Testament saints, the weak men whom the Lord sanctified and strengthened to be His voice. Look at Him, standing there in all His glory. You can see that He’s human. But He’s not like any man that you’ve ever seen. His divine nature is shining through His human nature. His flesh cannot hold back His divinity.

You’ll see Him again like this after His resurrection. He’ll be so transformed that you won’t always recognize Him. You’ll need the Spirit to open your eyes and your mind in order to know and understand and believe that this glorified man is the same One who was nailed to the cross; who was tempted in every respect like you are; who destroyed all you suffer when He suffered; and who truly died and truly was buried.

So, look at Him now. For the goal is the kingdom of heaven. And when we arrive, we will look like Him. That’s not just a wish or a dream. That’s a rock-solid promise. For St. Paul assures us that the Lord Jesus Christ will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body. And there He is in His glorious body. The fullness of God filling every cell of His body and shining through every pore of His flesh.

He does this not for His benefit. And not to show us how different He is from us. Our Lord transfigures to show us what the seed He plants in us will look like when we arrive; when we attain the fullness of His heavenly kingdom. For the body is sown in corruption, will be raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, and will be raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, and will be is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, and raised a spiritual body. And now, looking at Our Lord Jesus transfigured before our eyes—now we have an idea of what our spiritual body will look like. And how our life in God looks when we attain the kingdom of heaven.

It is good that Our Lord gives us this glimpse. He shows us not just what He’s like, but also what we’ll be like. For Our Lord knows what we’re like. We’re more interested in the end-game, in how things will turn out, than we are working through the hardness of life and striving against our ungodly desires. We want to know we’re there already without doing the hard work necessary for the journey.

The goal is the kingdom of heaven. There’s no more moving on once we’ve arrived. And what we need to believe, what we need to understand, what we need to see now, today, is that we’re standing right now in the kingdom of heaven. That this place, this Mass, is both the goal and the way to attain the fullness of our goal. If we lose this, then we lose everything. If this is messed with or tainted or corrupted or defiled, then we’re in danger of not reaching the goal.

So today Our Lord gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead. And He does it to strengthen us. For He knows—my goodness, does He ever know—that the journey is hard, that the devil will confuse and derail us, that life in Him and with Him entails a narrow path with hard choices and no easy options.

And so, today, Our Lord lets us see what lies ahead; what the goal looks like. And in doing so, He is teaching and reminding and urging us two things: that sacrificing all in order to remain true only to Him is worth whatever grief and hardship we might now bear; and that we must never lose heart. For that is what He did for our sake—He sacrificed Himself, even His divine powers and prerogatives; and He never wavered in His trust in the Father, even when He thought He was forsaken. And why was that? Because He knew, He saw, and He kept focused on the goal.

And the goal is the kingdom of heaven.

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Receiving God’s Justice

When the 4000 men together with their wives and children went out into the wilderness, they were not exercising their rights. Rights are within the realm of power and threats. Rights also have to do with justice. But our understanding of justice is that a justice is about what is fair for me or what is fair for you.

But these 4000 men with their wives and children went out seeking the justice of God. They are hungry and thirsting after His justice. His righteousness.

The justice of God is not about treating us fairly. The justice of God has to do with mercy. The justice of God has to do with the Just One was crucified for our benefit. The justice of God has to do with compassion and kindness.

So, compassion and kindness is what these people are seeking. In fact, it was compassion and kindness, it was mercy—God’s mercy—that drove them out of their cities into a desolate place where they had no shade from the sun, no speakers to hear better, nothing of comfort whatsoever. For three days, listening to Christ, and having Him heal their sick, listening to His word—that’s what drew the crowd out. They yearned to hear what He had to say. And they understood that He was speaking about not some broad concept of kindness. Rather, He was planting himself into their ears.

That is the justice of God.

Planting Himself into our ears, into our hearts, into our minds, into our very being—that produced in this multitude such great satisfaction that they did not even realize that they were hungry. They did not even realize that they had gone without food. And the touch of Christ, to heal the wounds of the sick, was no different than the words of Christ, to heal the wounds in their hearts.

That’s what these people were seeking—a gift from God. They were not demanding rights, but rather desiring this gift that exceeds all of our expectations, that is beyond anything that we could imagine.

Our holy father Gregory the Great describes it this way. When we seek the things that satisfy our body; when we wish to gratify our sexual urges; when we wish to grab with both hands and hold tightly to the things that we think we must have; when we wish to exercise control and power over certain circumstances and with certain people—then we might be satisfied for a while. But after a while the body will rebel. The body will rebel especially in terms of quantity. And it will rebel the more we feed our disordered passions. And it will rebel in such a way that we will want to do nothing more than push ourselves away from the table.

Instead, let us seek those things which satisfy the soul. For when it comes to the things that God provides for us; when it comes to those things which really sink down deeply not just into our hearts and minds, but even into the marrow of our souls; when it comes to these spiritual gifts given by Our Lord God—then we yearn for more yet without being bloated; and we hunger yet without ever overindulging.

In fact, the more that we experience the joys of the kingdom of heaven; the more we experienced holiness in Christ Himself; the more we experience God’s love and God’s body given to us in the place—the more our desire increase for these holy gifts increases. And our spirit does not repel them as our body does when we overindulge. As we receive more and more from God, our appetite increases, and we desire more.

This is what happened with those 4000 men, together with their wives and children. They desired more and more to the point that they forgot their physical desires and only focused on their spiritual desires.

Jesus, being the Just One, of course also understood that he needed to feed their bodies. So He gave them the gift of a few loaves of bread and a few fish. That was able to supply enough so that they could continue receiving the spiritual satisfaction from Him.

But in giving that gift, He also gave something to us: glimpse and foretaste and looking forward to what we receive here in this place. For what they received was bread and fish. What we receive his God’s body and blood. What they received satisfied the body for a moment. What we receive satisfies the soul. They received a little bit in order to stave off momentary death. We receive the Eucharistic gift which gets us through death into the life of the world to come.

They went out into the wilderness to receive Christ. We come here to do the same.

Sermon for Pentecost VI
19 July 2020

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Fighting the Inner Scribe, the Inner Pharisee

The words you just heard are from the Sermon on the Mount. A sermon Jesus gives to His disciples, which others get to listen to. A sermon that begins with Jesus describing the blessed life. His life. The life, not of pride or self-serving, not of doing what you think is best, not of feeding your disordered passions so that anger gets the best of you, affection turns to lust, and my truth denigrates Truth Himself. Rather, the blessed life, the Lord’s life—the life His life describes, and shows, and gives us for authentic living. That blessed life is to deprive yourself in order to live in obedience to God, no matter how much it hurts. That blessed life is to give up who you think you should be in order to become the human God designed you to be. That blessed life is to sacrifice whatever you hold most dear within your being, in order to attain heaven.

Our Lord says that we are truly capable of this blessed life. That we are the only creatures specially designed to embrace, and be fully filled with this blessed life. If only we can begin to be what we truly are: children loved to life by God our Father, men and women knitted to Christ’s glorified body, people animated and renewed with a right life-giving Spirit.

This blessed life is not an impossible dream. When we hold to the gift He is, and the grace He gives, then that blessed life is ours. When we let go of all the things we think we must hold with both hands, then Our Lord fills us with hope to live through our fears, with intimacy that dissolves our loneliness, with mercy that overwhelms whatever threatens us, and with a love that completes us in ways we never could imagine.

The worst enemy of the blessed life is not anarchy or atheism. The worst enemies are the Scribes and Pharisees. Not those guys from back then. But the scribe and the pharisee that lurks in the dark corners of our heart and mind. The scribe in our mind that looks for the loopholes, and seeks a work-around so that we can still get what we want while looking Christian. And the Pharisee in our heart that is more concerned with judging others than with looking critically at ourselves; more concerned that they do what they should and not mistreat me, rather than working on the amendment of life that strips away our fake niceness and false layers.

The Scribe and Pharisee in us works hard to bend and constrict, massage and manipulate the Lord’s commands. Then we’re not intent on rejoicing and living the spirit of the Lord’s Word, but rather aimed at sticking others with the letter of the law. And then we’re more intent on displaying our self-chosen identity while not caring who we damage or grind down or dismiss or oppress.

To our inner Pharisee, nothing matters except that I am heard. To our inner Scribe, a little part of us dies every time we say about someone, “I really don’t care.” The hurting, the confused, and the weak—no matter how loudly we dispute this, they are not our deep-down concern. We are too often concerned mostly with letting everyone know how right we are.

To call us to our senses, and to help us see how much we are hurting ourselves, Our Lord says that the blessed life depends on a righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.

What does that mean?

Consider this law: thou shalt not kill. For the scribe in you, that’s all about intent, and degree, and motive. And then you work the loop-holes in order to prove to yourself that you’ve kept the law. And for the Pharisee in you, killing is fine if you’re avenging, or defending someone’s rights, or making a better outcome. And then you work the logic to see if the ends justify the means.

But Our Lord reveals the lie within this thinking. He shows that anger kills more than a knife. Words wound more deeply than a gun. Name-calling and unfounded assumptions and hateful posts and tweets are more damaging than any other weapon.

Others are harmed when I’m angry. But the greatest destruction is to my soul. My words typed in rage, while the bile rises, are hurtful to others. But I ruin my soul more than theirs.

And that’s why Christ Jesus points to anger, rather than something else. For anger kills a part of you, and so leads you away from the blessed life—the life He wants for you, the life He plants in you, the life He sacrificed all to give you.

And what anger does, so does lust. And so does shaping my own narrative, making my own truth. Like anger, lust and truth-manipulating wound and threaten me more deeply than someone else. Because anger, lust, and truth-shaping are all about me living for me; about me not facing the fears which are running me; and about me caring about everything but my soul. So when I’m filled with anger, lust and the denial of Truth Himself, I hunger and thirst, not for righteousness, but for revenge, or gratification, or looking good.

Not restraining the temper, giving into unsacramental sexual desires, manipulating truth’s reality—all of these lead us into temptation, and deliver us into evil. For every time we feed them, we are going our own way, and not living within the Way that Christ says He is.

Christ Himself is the life we truly desire. And Christ Himself exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees—not for His sake, but for ours. And He does this by His humility, by His willing sacrifice, by His refusal to be run by His passions.

In a mercy and kindness that surpasses and outstrips any generosity we know, Christ pours into us His humility, His sacrifice, His self-restraint; together with His intimate and affectionate love which truly can chase away all isolation and loneliness when we let Him fill us.

And that’s the key: to let the righteousness that Christ is fill us fully. Or, to say it another way: to get out of our own way, and to truly lay down our fear, and then let Him, in His grace, carry us to the heights of heaven.  

St Paul says it this way: our Lord Jesus is ‘The grace of God that brings salvation.’ And that grace, which He pours over us and feeds into us—that is what truly exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, even as it also helps us achieve holy living.

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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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