Current Homily

Divine Community

As a kid my family belonged to St. Patrick’s parish and I attended the parish school for eight years. As students, of course, we were immersed in the lore and legends surrounding our Irish patron saint. And probably like most of you, our first exposure to the Trinity came in the form of a shamrock. I vaguely remember the nuns’ using the shamrock when we came to that section of the catechism, but mostly I remember shamrocks everywhere in our school throughout the month of March, pinning them on our uniforms, drawing them in art class, taking them home to show our parents. We really got into celebrating the feast of St. Patrick! His symbol represented our school identity, and the Trinity didn’t even enter our minds. Everyone, including the nuns I think, just basically let it go.

And that’s mostly what happened from the end of the 4th Century until recently when theologians began re-visioning the foundational beliefs of our faith to bring them in line with new language and insights from philosophy, science, psychology and various other areas of research. Back in 325, when the Council of Nicaea articulated its understanding of who Jesus was bishops depended on the philosophical language of their time. They also wanted to debunk the Arian position that Jesus, as Son of God, was not equal to God the Father. The arguments were fierce including street brawls between ordinary people, not unlike what is happening between political factions in cities across our own country today. Even after the Council formulated the Nicene Creed the matter wasn’t really settled. It wasn’t until the end of the 4th Century that the doctrine of the Trinity essentially reached its present form. And though belief in a Trinitarian God is accepted across denominations, everything about it, including its history, is so confusing people tend to ignore it, discount it, refuse to believe it or simply call it a ‘mystery’ and let it go. (more…)

God our Mother

Julian of Norwich was a 14th Century Christian anchoress and mystic who wrote a book called Revelations of Divine Love. What most characterized her theology was that she equated Divine love with Maternal love. One scholar (F. Beer, Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, 1992) says Julian believed Christ is not like a mother, but is literally The Mother. He says she believed the primal bond between mother and child is the nearest we can come to understanding the kind of relationship a person can have with Christ. “Just as God is truly our Father, so God is truly our Mother,” Julian says.

Today is Mother’s Day, and it seems fitting to reflect on God as our Mother today. It’s good for us to at least occasionally challenge the exclusive use of male pronouns and images in referring to God, and even to Christ, and the Spirit. God, Spirit, even Christ, has no gender. Using gendered pronouns helps us RELATE to God, and Jesus models that relationship by calling God, Abba, daddy, beloved and loving Father. But that doesn’t mean Jesus saw God as a man! God is beyond all names. When we get stuck in limiting images that pigeonhole God we are engaging in a form of idolatry. (more…)

People of Hope

And so it is Easter! Even when the sky is overcast and the rains seem endless, the beauty of spring is intoxicating! This year, perhaps more than any in recent memory, we need spring! We need signs of new life, signs of hope! The Easter Gospel is a story of hope. We see love, dedication and hope in the women who rise before daybreak to take the spices they’ve prepared to the tomb where Jesus was buried only three days before. In their grief, though still traumatized by the horrific events they have witnessed, they do not give up or retreat in fear. In every gospel the women are there. In every gospel they appear in the earliest hour of daylight, on the first day of the week, as midwives bridging the chaos of Jesus’ agony and death through his astounding transition into a new and glorious life. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna and the others were there through his trial, death and resurrection. Love held them in the drama and Love gave them reason to go on when all seemed lost forever. (more…)

Within the Womb of God

With crowds of people surrounding him on the road into Jerusalem, Jesus rides a donkey who, along with her colt, carry him into the city. He has garnered quite a following by this time, and also a fair number of enemies. His triumphal procession into Jerusalem, even seated on a beast of burden, has likely angered them even further. They plan to get rid of him for good. The woman with the alabaster jar sensed what was coming. With extravagant generosity and gentleness she cared for him and anointed his body for burial. He was so moved by her tender care of him that he directed her story be remembered whenever this gospel was proclaimed, and that it be told “in memory of her.” Judas, though, fumes about the wasted oil and is furious with both the woman and Jesus. Out of anger he steps into the quagmire of the elders’ decision to get rid of Jesus and, knowingly or unknowingly, sets the plan in motion.

Events move quickly from there. The chief priests and elders craft an image of Jesus as criminal, traitor and blasphemer of God. They feed these hostile images to the crowd who just days before hailed him with grand Hosanna’s. They turn the crowd into a rioting mob. With trumped up allegations they continue to incite the mob until it becomes a violent beast bent on destruction. People act against their better instincts and highest values. They even forfeit their own safety by calling for the release of Barabbas. They become a killing machine demanding the crucifixion of an innocent. It is a story of barbaric cruelty, of wanton persecution. It is also a timeless story as we know from watching similar dynamics play out on the national and world stage.

The crucifixion we remember today was horrific on so many levels. But I am convinced Jesus wouldn’t want us to stop there. He would want us to recognize the crucifixions in our own day as an assault against Divinity itself, on a par with his own. They include the merciless torture and death of countless populations around the world—from Syria to Honduras, Somalia and beyond. They bring to mind purposely ravaged fields, destroyed water supplies, bombings, government-sanctioned torture and killing, negligence toward women, families and children fleeing bombs, guns, hunger, thirst. These crucifixions are no less tragic or horrific than the one we remember today. (more…)

Leave All You Know

Almost 20 years ago I was living in Eugene when an acquaintance invited me to visit a graduate program in the Bay Area. It sounded exciting and I decided to check it out. The visit went well and I met some wonderful people. But when I left I had the oddest feeling—like something was pulling me to that city—but the feeling wasn’t connected to the school itself! Back in Eugene the feeling continued to grow. I told my spiritual director I felt strangely “pulled” to Oakland, but not specifically to that school or program. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t even like the city. I couldn’t see myself living there at all…   But eventually I went. I felt ‘called’ there.

It wasn’t easy leaving everything behind, letting go of all that was familiar—family, friends, the network I’d created that gave my life meaning. And when I arrived and met with the Director of the school I quickly realized it truly wasn’t for me. So I continued to explore the area, trying to figure out why I’d packed up and left everything else behind. There were a series of frustrating dead-ends and I felt adrift for months. Then one afternoon I walked into an admissions office on the GTU campus and met a warm, friendly woman who welcomed me with open arms. I still wasn’t sure this was the reason I’d moved there, but it somehow confirmed my risky decision to leave friends and work to follow that odd pull to Oakland. As it turned out I spent three years there, and those years prepared me for what I am doing here today. God had led me there. It changed my life.

“Leave all you know and journey to a new land I will show you,” God said to Abram and Sarai. Leave all you know… Leave all you know… (more…)

Holy Ground in Crisis Times

“Not even a month and I’m already weary,” a friend said yesterday. “How will I ever make it through 4 years of this?” Another responded “I don’t read the paper or listen to the news anymore. I know I need to stay informed but I can’t handle the daily assault on things that matter so much to me. I don’t want to give up but I need a break and I don’t know what else to do.” “I know how you feel,” I said to them both. “I feel the same way.” People come into my office each week with overwhelming personal and family issues. Yet those issues rest in a cauldron of social unrest and general anxiety that amplifies their concerns because the foundation of the world appears to be crumbling.

When the ground gives way beneath us people scramble for something to hold onto. I remember being at the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake in Santa Cruz, 1989. Like most people, I suppose, I had always taken for granted that the ground I stood on was dependably solid and stable. But in those few minutes the earth itself gave way. It shook and rumbled with an unnerving roar and I reached for the door of my office, holding on, unsure the building would remain standing. When the first wave was over a second, third and fourth followed.

When it seemed safe to leave and go outside, everything was absolutely and eerily still. I made my way home through debris cluttered roadways, downed power lines. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw my house still standing but inside the shelves were askew, their contents thrown across the floor. Cupboard doors were blown open, dishes flung and broken. The rooms were in shambles. Now and again the earth would thunder to life once more. Many chose to sleep outside that night and the next as aftershocks continued. Downtown looked like a war zone. Heaps of rubble were everywhere. The bookshop, coffee shop and other local landmarks were gone. Many died—friends of friends, neighbors. All roads leading into and out of town were impassable. We were cut off from the world for over a week. The inability to move in or out was frightening.

These memories return as I look at the state of collapse in so many of our inner cities with people stranded and dying on our streets, social networks and environmental protections threatened, healthcare divorced from a basic need for support in sickness, the value of a healthy society shattered, pieces strewn across the lawns and fields of every town. The earthquake mirrors my experience of what I see and feel happening today. The ground of shared reality has come undone. Gaping craters appear where there were once stable roadways. Even many of our operating principles lie in piles of rubble or are threatening to collapse. Laws we passed and thought invincible are being torn from their moorings. The nation-town has crumbled. Everyone is in shock, waiting for the next wave of after shocks. (more…)

Sitting at Mary’s Knee

In the dark days after the destruction of Judah Isaiah tells his listeners—do not be afraid. Look! he says. Your God is coming! Your God is coming to save you.  In these dark days, when one report after another gives us reason to worry about the future of our planet, our nation, our struggling communities—wouldn’t we love to believe God will come and save us? Isaiah’s words lie at the heart of Advent, this season dedicated to WAITING and HOPE.

The unfathomable abyss of God’s mysterious ways, God’s pregnant darkness, fosters terror. We teeter at the edge of a vast unknown, often grabbing at whatever knobs and handles are available trying to gain control. But the controls are not, and never were, in our hands. Instead we are asked to wait—faithfully, patiently, expectantly—trusting God is with us and will, somehow, save us.

There are those who believe that Jesus will return and right the wrongs of humankind. The words of James have been used to validate that belief and argue for the second coming as an antidote to the world’s woes. But perhaps the most important words for us in James’ letter are found in his last sentence: model your lives on the example of the prophets who suffered tremendous hardships patiently while carrying God’s message to the people. (more…)

Do Not Lose Hope

Like many of you, this past Wednesday I woke with a knot in my stomach and quickly fell into a state of mourning. First came the shock and disbelief, the initial panic, then the race for a thread of hope, and finally the numbness, the cold paralysis. Though I went to the office and worked through the day, once I got home I found I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t read. My heart prayed without words. I felt a deep sense of solidarity with all the frightened ‘others’ in the country and the world who were justly terrorized by these horrifying election returns. In my mind’s eye I saw many families in agony, anticipating their loved ones being torn away from them—their fathers, mothers, children, aunts, uncles, cousins—their own circle of support wrenched and broken by immigration officials.

As she was walking down the street, a friend told me later, she met the eyes of a newly arrived neighbor she had smiled at once before. The woman, Latina, saw my friend’s smile and hurried across a busy street to ask for a hug, though the two had never met. The woman dissolved in tears in my friend’s arms, speaking in a rush of Spanish my friend didn’t understand. Holding her close she simply said “we are with you. I live just up the street. You are not alone.” (more…)

A God of Relationship

Naaman is a Syrian army commander, a man of power and influence, but he is suffering from leprosy. Putting his superior rank on display he rides into Israel seeking the prophet Elisha. Word has it that Elisha is a healer. He expects an impressive and personal meeting with Elisha but instead is met by a messenger who conveys the prophet’s instructions. He is to go wash in the Jordan River. He manages to get beyond this affront to his status only when his own servants intervene. His pride is overshadowed by his desperate need for healing. He follows Elisha’s instructions, bathes in the river Jordan, and comes out clean. Now, overwhelming grateful, he offers Elisha extravagant gifts as payment for restoring his health. Elisha refuses. He will not take credit for something God has done. So Naaman asks if he might take a mound of Israeli dirt back with him to Syria. In the culture of the time gods are seen as territorial, so worship must be anchored in the soil of a god’s region. Naaman needs actual dirt from Israel to worship Israel’s God and begin building that relationship.

The ten lepers who approached Jesus in Luke’s Gospel were also desperate. They had no prestigious position to advance, they simply knew Jesus’ reputation as a healer and called out to him as he approached the village. Like Elisha, Jesus didn’t touch any of them. He simply gave them an instruction to show themselves to the priests who held the keys for their re-entry into society. On the way, they were healed. (more…)

Lost Threads of Mercy for Mother Earth

“Then God spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have corrupted themselves. They have made for themselves a molten calf and are worshiping it and crying out ‘This is your god, O Israel!’” God is angry and wants to consume this ungrateful people in an almighty rage!

But Moses pleads with God for their sake, reminding God of the promise made to Abraham, Sarah, and all those others back in the day. “Remember?” Moses asks God. “Remember? You swore to them you would make their descendants as numerous as the stars! You said ‘all this land I will give your descendants as their heritage forever.”

And God remembered.  Mercy flowed. And God forgave the people.

We are those descendants of Abraham and Sarah, God’s people. And at 7 billion strong we are certainly growing toward being as numerous as the stars! But the land we were promised—this land, this earth—is not only OUR heritage. It is the heritage of our descendants as well, and their descendants, and theirs and theirs, on and on forever. It is our Home, the only home we know. It is where our children are born. It is where our loved ones die and are buried. We live and learn here, side by side, as sisters and brothers wrestling with limits, harboring gifts and dreams planted within each of us by a loving God for the good of everyone. But we have forgotten who we are and where we are. We got lost somewhere on the trail of ambition and achievement, spoiling our environment in the process. (more…)

Fire, Division and Prophecy

I read something in the New York Times a week ago that said American’s anxiety has ratcheted up 150% since 2004 and has more than doubled in just the last 8 years. These results were based on a study of internet searches over the last decade. I thought about this troubling fact when I began working with today’s readings. Here is Jesus saying: “I have come to light a fire on the earth.” If you think I’ve come to bring peace, you’re wrong; I’ve come to sow division. And division we have—division in the world, in the nation, in the church… As highly social beings, dependent on each other for our well-being and survival, division of such magnitude makes us very anxious.

Division isn’t new, of course. In Jeremiah’s time the political situation was at least as contentious and bitter as it is in our own day, just not as global! Judean leaders were divided into factions, with differing views and differing political alliances and waged war to secure their interests just as ours do. In the end Judah fell, Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed and the movers and shakers of society—the soldiers, craftsmen, religious leaders and nobility—were all deported to Babylon. Only the poorest and weakest remained in the land.

Jeremiah’s account of how he received his commission as a prophet includes these words: “The Lord said to me ‘Before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you….This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.” These are words of confirmation for Jeremiah as well as words of division; they are also words of hope. Fire on the earth is destructive, but it is also purifying and regenerative. Some trees like the giant Sequoia and jack pine, for instance, depend on fire to release their seeds so they can germinate. Without fire there would be no next generation. Fire stimulates and revitalizes closed systems, infusing them with new life. (more…)

Neighbors: Coming Near…Being Moved

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest, author and professor of theology at Piedmont College in Georgia. In her book, The Preaching Life, she tells of a time she was preparing a sermon on the Good Samaritan. As she was driving to work she saw a car on the side of the road. The hood was up and a tall black man stepped into the roadway as her car got closer. He held up a pair of jumper cables and looked directly at her. Her mind leapt from one thought to another in a matter of seconds, returning again and again to the idea that the man needed help. But as a woman alone in a car she made the hurried decision to pass him by, hoping the next person would stop to help. So she left the man standing in the road and continued driving to her office to, ironically, finish her sermon on the Good Samaritan.

Taylor talks about God not caring much what we ‘think’ or even what we ‘believe,’ but caring a lot about what we ‘do’ and ‘don’t do.’ If our good thoughts and positive beliefs don’t translate into merciful actions they have little value in this very physical world. Changing the world isn’t only about changing opinions and attitudes; it’s about what we actually ‘do’ based on what we know in our heart. (more…)

Holy Mother God of Pentecost

Joan Chittister talks about Holy Wisdom in her book “In Search of Belief.” Scripture, she says, describes “the feminine aspect of the Godhead,” using words such as “ruah, the breath of God, the mighty wind that hovered over the empty waters at the beginning of life in the process of Creation. [These are] all feminine images of a birthing, mothering God, of pregnant waiting and waters breaking and life coming forth. This Spirit, this living Wisdom that is God,” she says, “lifts us above ourselves, tunes [like a tuning fork] to the voice of the Creator around us and within us, comes upon us with gentle force or terrible consciousness, and cares for life, day in, day out, unrelenting in its urge for wholeness. The Spirit prods us, proves us, brings life in us to creative fullness… And yet,” she says, “having defined the Spirit as Wisdom, as ruah, as ‘she,’ this feminine force of life as feminine is promptly submerged, totally forgotten, completely ignored. The masculine images reappear, the genderless God is gendered, and the fullness of God, the fullness of life, is denied in the Church. The Church itself stays half whole.”

I’m reminded of her words as I reflect on the latest from Pope Francis. When the 900 or so leaders of congregations of women religious worldwide met with him this past Thursday they told him that women had served as deacons in the early church, so “why not construct an official commission that might study the question,” they asked? His response–“Yes, it would do good for the church to clarify this point. I will do something like this.”

That answer sent ripples of hope through certain segments of the church, but also immediate disclaimers from high-ranking officials saying this wasn’t a move toward ordaining women in any capacity. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See’s Press office, was quick to rein in hope by stressing that Francis “did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons!” In fact, in his conversation with the Superiors of women’s congregations Francis made clear his understanding that women deacons in the early Church weren’t ordained. There is, however, ample evidence that they actually were ordained. There are Rites for the ordination of women deacons on a par with those of men dating back at least to the 6th and up through the 11th centuries in the Latin Rite, and both earlier and later in the East. The resistance to women deacons, let alone women priests, is less a theological conundrum than another example of what Francis himself recently termed male chauvinism within the hierarchical men’s club of the Church. (more…)

Walking the Walk

We are celebrating Mother’s Day and the Ascension today. These two “feast days,” if you will, fit nicely together, especially if you imagine Jesus returning home to the Source of life—his own Divine Mother. Readings for Ascension also offer a rare opportunity to hear the end of volume one and the beginning of volume 2 of Luke’s writings all in one liturgy. This may not seem like a big deal but this two-volume set has an important role in understanding who we are and what we are about as a people.

In Acts Luke has given us a sequel to the Gospel. He shows how Jesus passed his ministry to the disciples and how they were infused with the Spirit so they could carry on his work of loving and healing God’s people. Without Luke the link between Jesus’ death/resurrection/ascension and the early church would not be so clear, and the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit among those first disciples would be much more obscure.

Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name as a chronicle of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was his attempt to put it all into some kind of logical, orderly form that anyone could understand. He addressed it to a person named Theophilus—a person we know nothing about—who might have been a patron, a benefactor or even a high-ranking official. His Gospel prepares the way for what happens in Acts, volume 2 of his 2-volume set. This second volume is also addressed to Theophilus. Together these two books comprise over one-fourth of the New Testament and establish a theological link between Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of his disciples. The Holy Spirit is that link. She is the bridge across the waters connecting Jesus’ life and mission to the physical world he has left behind. She breathes that life into the disciples, inspires and guides their ministry as they carry out the work Jesus left them to complete. (more…)

Another Side to This Boat

For those wondering what Pope Francis would do with all the conflicting ideas that emerged from his two Synods on the Family, the answer came Friday with publication of his 263 page Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”. Reading through the document I see Francis continuing to admonish bishops and priests to end all law-bound judgments and replace them with understanding, empathy and mercy. His tone is pastoral throughout, as we would expect.

He calls for “a healthy dose of self-criticism” within the governing structures of the church. He says “we [church pastors]…find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who…are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. I imagine we can all celebrate that statement!

In the second chapter he says “we rejoice to see old forms of discrimination [against women] disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. We must see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women,” he says. He also condemns the claim that the women’s movement is the cause of many of today’s problems. He calls it “false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.”  Ah, yes! Another statement worth celebrating!

There is actually much good in this document, especially if you follow the heterosexual norm or see the world through that lens, or have less investment in women’s issues generally. But there are also statements within this long exhortation that will cause many of us to feel discouraged. For example, Francis’ vision of family does not include LGBT families. He quotes the final report from the 2015 Synod saying “there are absolutely no grounds for considering [gay] unions to be in any way similar…to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Those of us who have been waiting for affirming and inclusive statements from the Vatican, who have hoped for decisive words from Francis that welcome and include LGBT voices and insights—we will have to wait.   There is no mention of the lived experiences of LGBT couples and individuals in this document. Francis still views women, gender and family in completely traditional ways.

For all its merciful improvement in tone, the document falls short of what many of us had hoped for due to a tragic absence of women’s voices and experiences, and the likewise notable absence of cross-cultural LGBT experiences of loving committed relationships that sustain family life against all odds. And the voices of actual families themselves are nowhere to be found.

The man at the top is still one of the high priests of the Sanhedrin. And though he is a man of prayer, a man open to the Spirit and demonstrating tremendous courage in the face of entrenched opposition from many of the other high priests, a man we can admire for his active engagement in many social justice issues, he still lives within a closed system.  And that closed system ignores advances in theology, anthropology and psychology that could and should inform the development of doctrine, and encourage the growth of a more respectful and inclusive church and world. (more…)