I. I spent October of 1991 on Unit 6-A of St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. I was hospitalized for depression. I was embarrassed to be there, especially because the others who were there were obviously in much worse shape than I was. I was smarter, classier, and less crazy than the rest: better than them. When I complained to a nurse that I needed to be in a place with people more like me, she said something that changed my life. “You’re right. You don’t have a lot in common with the others here. But what matters is what you do share: what you have in common is your pain.”
II. Suffering is inevitable, unavoidable: it happens to everyone. But there’s also the brand of suffering that comes with being a disciple of Jesus Christ: the consequence of love, service, sacrifice, and surrender for the good of another, and for the common good.
The Church, the parish community in particular, is where we practice service, sacrifice, and surrender, where we are coaxed away from making our way alone. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas maintains that, in the face of pain, we don’t need an explanation, but love. Jesus didn’t solve the mystery of suffering, but initiated a “community of care,” a community in which the suffering and non-suffering are mutually bound to each other, a community that absorbs suffering and sustains the sufferer. Jesus’ ministry of being a “community of care,” is entrusted to us, realized through us. Suffering draws us deeper into communion with others and with God. What we have in common is our pain.
III. Here at Ascension, one of the most critical needs is to accompany our immigrant brothers and sisters in a difficult and frightening time. We also stand with one another in sadness and anger as the Church faces the consequences of sexual abuse by clergy and its coverup. And we walk with one another through the pain that each one of us suffers, each in our own way in our own lives. It’s not a matter of the strong helping the weak, or those having it together helping those who don’t, but fell0w-sufferers, like-sufferers, companions. What we have in common is our pain.
Being in a community, especially a multicultural community, costs something. It means standing with the other in their struggles and concerns which may likely be very different from our own. It means service, sacrifice, and surrender. It means losing our lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel so that we all might be saved.
I. An “impediment” is, literally, something that gets in the way of our feet—our “pedi,” in Latin (pedal, pedestrian, pedicure). Jesus poked, spat, and groaned to heal the man with hearing and speech impediments. Back in the olden days, when some of you were baptized, the priest reenacted, to a certain degree, Jesus’ hands-on healing. The priest stuck his fingers into your ears and put salt on your tongue, and said: “Ephphatha—Be opened!” But, more than difficulties with hearing or speaking, Isaiah maintains that our real impediment in proclaiming and living God, is fear: a lack of faith. We’re afraid that the grand hopes that Isaiah sings of today can never come to be. Fear impedes us from stepping into the future; it paralyzes us; it gets in the way of our feet.
II. Poet Rainer Rilke says that an infant’s journey into human awareness, its rescue from fear, and from what he calls the “surging abyss,” depends on hearing the mother’s voice: her loving sounds and gentle cadence, her coaxing words, her verbal caresses.
Christianity is a particular kind of language: a “mother tongue.” More than mere instruction, Christianity’s most enduring outcomes are the effects of words and works that encourage and edify. Theology is great—but paramount is Jesus’ voice: his loving sounds and gentle cadence, his coaxing words, his verbal caresses.
III. With a moan and a touch, Jesus shares his steady, gentle strength with the man in today’s gospel, opening the man’s ears, loosening his tongue, lessening his fear. Likewise, with tender words and compassionate companions, a Spirit-filled piece of bread and sip of wine, Jesus shares that same gentle strength with us—restoring, reassuring, reconciling. He opens our ears, our minds and hearts, loosens our tongues, lessens our fear. He rescues us from the “surging abyss.”
“Ephphatha! Be opened!”
I. I was on retreat last week at St. Mary’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Morristown, New Jersey—safely tucked away when the clergy sex abuse scandal in this country became an even sorrier spectacle with the Pennsylvania revelations, the discoveries concerning Cardinal McCarrick, and the highest level of Church authorities accused by other Church authorities of massive cover-ups. I regretted not being with you last weekend when this sad news broke. So today, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the situation.
II. A brother priest of mine, who describes himself as deeply saddened and dismayed, writes,
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the depth of the crisis facing the Church in the United States—a crisis borne of abuse of power, clericalism, careerism, an absence of accountability, and immorality.
Deeply saddened and dismayed, yes, but also mad. I want someone to say, “I screwed up. I’m taking responsibility for what I did and didn’t do. It’s my fault and I’m sorry.” I’m also waiting for someone to say, “Here’s a proposal for a path forward.”
III. Here’s one way that we can offer a proposal for a path forward. We are planning a gathering for what we are calling a “Wisdom Circle” on Saturday, September 22, from 9:00—11:00 AM here at Ascension. It will provide a safe space, a sanctuary for us to share and discuss our thoughts and feelings surrounding the current crisis. We’ll forward our comments and conversation to Archbishop Hebda and other Church leaders. Although we might wish to take Jesus’ harsh words to the hypocritical leaders in today’s gospel and hurl them at a hypocritical priest or bishop, or some other scribe or Pharisee, that isn’t enough. At the same time that we voice our concerns, we have to claim the responsibility and wisdom to propose a way forward through this crisis: a way forward for Church leaders, but also a way forward for us.
IV. And this is the source of our wisdom: the Spirit who speaks through you by virtue of your baptism. All religious practice and practices must be subordinated to knowing Christ Jesus and embodying him in the world. We cannot allow religion to get in the way of God. No person, no thing, no rule—yours, mine, or theirs—nothing can replace Jesus Christ as the object of our faith and the source of our worship. When religion gets in the way of God, when it is shaped and misshaped to cater to personal preferences and positions, religion becomes idolatry. “Pure religion,” St. James says today, is care for the widow and orphan, the poor and vulnerable—and for those of us here at Ascension, I would add the care and protection for the immigrant. “True worship” empowers us for compassion and service and truth. Again, St. James:
“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you that has the power to save your souls…and be doers of this word.”
Be doers of that word that has been planted in you.
I. Some years ago, a group of American sisters traveled to Guatemala to begin work as missionaries there. Upon arriving, they were overwhelmed by the poverty and the violence that they encountered. Its effect on them was apparent to those who lived there. Recognizing their pain, the residents told the sisters that they’d best go home. “Go home and learn hope,” they advised. “When you can bring us hope, then come back.”
II. Lately, I’ve wondered whether or not I need to go home and learn hope and then, come back. As I’ve stood here at the 11:30 Mass, I’ve struggled to find a word of hope to our immigrant members who, given their wide family networks, are all affected by the daily threat of detention or deportation, terrified at the prospect of being separated from their families. My hope wobbled after this week’s release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse. While I’ve been tempted to ignore it and move on to something else, I needed to be angered and saddened and sickened by it. How does one remain hopeful in a Church and society where priests and bishops are more important than children, where the rich are more valuable than the poor, where white lives matter more than black and brown lives?
III. In his first letter, St. Peter counsels, “Have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for your hope.”
On Thursday, I met with Catalina Morales, an immigration organizer, to discuss strategies for getting priests more involved in advocacy and accompaniment with undocumented immigrants. Catalina herself is an undocumented Mexican immigrant with DACA status. I asked Catalina what gives her hope in the face of it all. She said, “Community. When I remember how many people are actually trying to build community, [I know] that it is the community of God.
IV. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes,
If Christianity [makes] any sense, it must be because of something to do with eating that meal.
Jesus cautions us today to not settle for manna—short-lived, temporary, impermanent food—when there’s something more, something far better, being offered: true food and true drink. We depend on so many things, or ideas, or drugs, to satisfy our deepest longings—but these come and go. What alone answers our deepest hunger is an intimate, living relationship with Jesus Christ. Things change, things don’t change, people come and go, priests and bishops can be monsters. An intimate, living relationship with Jesus Christ cannot rest on such impermanent, ever-changing variables.
V. At my First Communion, I learned that among the most sacred times during Mass are those precious few moments after Communion, when everyone is quiet, more or less. It’s the time when we allow the Body and Blood of Christ to be absorbed into our very fiber; when, according to Andre Dubus, we “taste and chew and swallow the intimacy of God.” In “Holy Communion,” we ingest the essence of Jesus Christ: that is, the abiding awareness of divine love that transforms death into life. That is real food. That is real drink. That is the reason for our hope.
A few years ago, on the backroads of San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala, I witnessed the women of that town, with their babies bundled on their backs, go to the mission’s pick-up truck to collect a sack of grain. Occasionally, a bag would burst, spilling onto the ground. The women quickly, but calmly, would bend down and rescue from the dust as much as their pockets would hold. Then they’d lick their fingers, and dab up what remained. Without even a glance over their shoulders, they would reach back and stick their grainy fingers into their children’s mouths. These mothers called this unexpected treat, “pan del cielo”—“bread from heaven”: God’s providence, the work of angels.
There are some people given to occasional bouts of cynicism and melodrama who, when they have to move forward into what may be difficult circumstances, might mutter, “I’d rather be dead.” We hear just that from Elijah today. He cries, “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life!” He’d had it, and really did want to die: he prays for death. What he gets instead is a cake and a jug of water. Strengthened by the food, he also received the courage to move forward through another forty days and nights: God’s providence, the work of angels.
There are times when we’ve had it, when it’s altogether too much—when we’re hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, utterly spent: road-weary pilgrims. Imagine what those who are seeing their families torn apart are feeling. In the Midwest, the immigration office is headquartered here in St Paul, and is the third highest in the nation for ICE arrests, up 72% over last year. We may just want to die. So, we come here—not because there are ready solutions to be found. But here, in our composed, deliberate recollection, in the company of like-suffering pilgrims, good people, we sidestep death, we escape death. Here we taste and see the goodness of the Lord, we find the Bread of Life, and the courage to move forward—if only for today.
If God can use a sack of grain, cake and water, bread and wine to achieve His will, surely he can use us, ordinary people. Today, I extend to you an invitation to provide accompaniment—to be an acompañante, which asks you to consider making a commitment to walk with members of the local immigrant community who, for reasons pertaining to their immigration status, have to report to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), appear in immigration court, or request accompaniment for other civil or criminal encounters. For those who are interested, there will be training sessions taking place on Wednesday, August 22, in the evening and on Saturday morning, September 8. Please call the office to register if interested.
What we do here week after week, may seem to some eyes and minds, not very much. For us who believe, it’s nothing less than God’s providence, the work of angels.
I. It’s called “Glamour Shots.” You’ve seen them in malls: portrait photography, as their website states, of, “you being the best version of yourself”—“you” with chicer clothes, bigger hair, and more makeup than you’ve ever imagined—with some digital touchups. They claim, “Our personalized consultant works with you to craft a photo session so you get exactly what you always imagined: You. Being fabulous.”
For those of you who came to this country as immigrants, you may have been given a Glamour Shot of the United States. Welcoming, warm, and providing all the opportunities and assistance for you to be the best version of yourself. Hopefully that’s what you found. But perhaps you discovered that the Glamour Shot was deceiving. Many are feeling that way in these terrifying, terrible times. We hear today the Israelites when they discovered that things weren’t what they were cracked up to be:
Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!
We all of us may have been, whether in work, or relationships, with our hopes and dreams, enticed by Glamour Shots, and in the end, when we discovered the real thing, wondered “What is this?”
II. The Aramaic word, “manna,” means, literally, “What is this?” “What is it?” The Israelites didn’t have a clue what the white stuff was—very unglamourous—but they ate it, because they were hungry. And rather than complain about what it wasn’t, Moses urged them to look beyond what they were given: if they weren’t satisfied by what they were given, look beyond to the giver who, in the end, always satisfies. God asked them to trust, God promised He would be there, and He was. Jesus likewise pleads with his listeners to not think with our stomachs, but to open our hearts and minds, to look beyond the bread, to the One who gives it. Jesus turns desire for bread into an opportunity to teach about a different kind of food: faith in Jesus. It is faith in Jesus that satisfies our deepest hungers. Jesus is life. We may be otherwise disappointed—things may not be what they were cracked up to be—but Jesus will see us through. “Manna” is no longer a word of desperation, but a blessing.
III. Theologian, Robert Hovda, writes,
Good liturgical celebration…takes us by the hairs of our heads, lifts us momentarily out of the cesspool of injustice we call home, puts us in the promised and challenging reign of God, where we are treated like we have never been treated anywhere else.
This accounts for our appetite for this Eucharistic bread, our passion for this sacrament. So much more than a sign is revealed and received here. Here we taste, we feed on, the promised reign of God. Here we meet Jesus Christ, who treats us like we’ve never been treated anywhere else—by anyone else.
h/t: Mary McGlone
I. Frederick Buechner writes,
Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
Someone else’s skin: What’s it like to have black or brown or white skin? Or, what’s it like to be the parent of a terminally ill child? Or the child of an undocumented immigrant? Someone suffering with severe anxiety or depression? The victim and survivor of sexual abuse?
As much as anyone could, Jesus knew what it was like to live inside someone else’s skin. The Greek verb used in today’s Gospel to describe his emotion—splanchnizomai—is politely translated, “moved with pity.” Splanchna are intestines, innards, guts. Jesus knew others’ pain viscerally. It was gut-wrenching.
II. Jesus was moved to compassion when, in today’s gospel, he saw those in need of care, of protection, of shepherding. The word, “compassion,” means “to suffer with,” to suffer together. The Eucharist trains us to suffer with others. Does this communion move us? Does it lead us to compassion? The best judge of that, of whether our Eucharistic liturgy is effective, is the parent of the terminally ill child, and the child of an undocumented immigrant, the survivor of sexual abuse, those beyond this sanctuary: those in need of care, of protection, of shepherding. Do they experience the compassion of our communion?
III. What all of us have to offer to anyone who suffers is to be there with them, to stay there with them in what might be an uncomfortable place, with nothing more and nothing less than our companionship. The apostles gathered together with Jesus. They did it all together, never alone. We, too, can offer the love of a shepherd or, at least, the friendship of a sheep.
I. It seems that whenever I’m getting ready to travel, with all its packing and unpacking, this pesky gospel about “traveling light” rolls around. Contrary to Jesus’ advice, I consistently overpack. I always carry money in my belt with my ATM card. And enough books, socks, and Peanut M&M’s to see me through September.
We maintain that, if we had to give it up, we could. But, we never really try it. How desperately we cling to our baggage, rather than trust in the maternal love and fatherly providence of God.
II. But there’s another reason to travel light: the less we pack, the more space we have to accept what others provide: the humility to depend on others, ready to receive what they offer us—not money or Peanut M&M’s, but wisdom, knowledge, and grace. We often want to fix something for the other— a suffering immigrant brother and sister, for one—and that’s a good thing. But perhaps, rather than presuming just how to do that, what is needed is the humility to admit that we don’t have the answers, after all. But what all of us have to offer to anyone whose culture and language and life experience is different from ours, and those whose way is difficult, is to be there with them, to stay there with them in what might be an uncomfortable place, with nothing more and nothing less than our companionship. Less talk and more listening. Less leading and more being led.
Jesus instructs his disciples today to “stay there until you leave.” Well, of course. Maybe what we need to do is just stay there. Just stay there.
III. Some weeks ago my right arm was wrapped in a bandage as I’d broken my wrist. I was in our school when a third-grader—let’s call her Angel—approached me, wanting to know what had happened to my arm, if it hurt very bad, etc., so I filled her in on all the details. She walked with me down the hall a ways when she said, “Here, I’ll help you.” She took my arm in her hands and lifted it, carried it, and very solemnly led me down to her classroom. Angel’s companionship, her accompaniment, were pretty good therapy for the wrist and the soul.
Stay there until you leave. Just stay there.
h/t: Henri Nouwen
I. Were I to lay on you today a catalogue of my fears, failures, anxieties, and insecurities, you’d likely say, “O Father, you’re not that bad.” Or, “Father, you’re not that bad.” But it shouldn’t surprise as we all have one or more of what St. Paul calls his “thorn in the flesh.” Is this the place where we can count on finding a nifty, no-fail, no-fault method of extracting those thorns pain free? No, not so much. We don’t come here, week after week, with the aim of fixing something. What we do, and perhaps the best we can do, is direct one another to where real help is available, the radical, absolute help that none of us can give to another. No, we know that we are not the ultimate helper. We can only point to him and promise that he is there. Jesus is our companion not only in our personal struggles, but with us in the face of those thorny issues, often overwhelming, that we deal with as a community: poverty and inequality, the racism that is embedded in our society and in us, the current disaster of our broken immigration system, and the current disaster of our broken government. How weak, how powerless, we can feel in the face of it all. How impossible life would be without the Lord with us.
II. St. Paul “boasts most gladly” of his weaknesses— not because weakness is glorious, but because it’s where Christ’s power is most evident. The more vulnerable we are, the more likely we are to turn to God. The weaker we are, the more potent God’s grace. It’s a bold claim. Living the Christian way is not a matter of whether we’re strong enough, but whether we’re weak enough. While our powerlessness—and our fears, failures, anxieties, and insecurities—may seem to be “thorns in the flesh,” they can be our way to salvation. I experienced that firsthand in 2008 when I spent 28 days at Hazelden for the treatment of alcoholism and addiction. My life had never been in such chaos, I’d never been so low. At the same time, I’d never experienced the presence of the Lord more truly and deeply. His grace was sufficient.
III. I am content with weaknesses… I boast most gladly of my weaknesses…for when I am weak, then I am strong.
h/t: Michael Buckley, Richard Rohr
I. I occasionally walk through St. Mary’s Cemetery, just across the street from where I live. Every time, I pause at my brother Georgie’s grave, my would-be eldest brother who died just after his first birthday. He’d now be 70 years old. That my parents had to bury their first-born baby boy still takes my breath away.
II. Because his twelve-year-old daughter’s life was at stake, a distraught, desperate synagogue leader, abandons his disdain for the renegade Jesus, and begs him for assistance: “Just come, and lay your hands on her.” Jesus’ touch is Jairus’ last, best, only hope.
At the same time, a woman with a twelve-year-old hemorrhage, rather than approach Jesus for his healing touch, takes it without asking. She presumed that Jesus wouldn’t dare touch her: after all, she hadn’t been touched for twelve years. Blood was life: a sacred, precious, dangerous force. A bleeding woman was a dying woman: neither she nor a dead girl could be touched because they were impure, unclean.
III. These stories were written decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when the earthly Jesus could no longer be touched. Our brother and sister Christians left this witness to assure us that whenever we hemorrhage, however life is drained from us—in sickness, anxiety, sadness, or despair—Jesus still touches and heals. The Christian community who passed on their story knew the presence of Jesus in their communion. They knew that human touch which communicates divine care and inclusion heals. In communion and sacrament, we touch the divine, something rarely achieved in isolation. While this human touch doesn’t always end our pain, it ends our loneliness.
Perennially, we look for relief in so many people, places, and things. Here and now, Jesus comes and lays his hands on us, and says, “Little girl, little lamb, get up.” Jesus’ touch is our last, our best, our only hope.