I. It’s been eleven months since Philando Castile’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Castile was not Catholic, but the Cathedral Rector said that day that the church was there for all “who seek shelter from the storms of life.” I’m grateful that Ascension serves that very same purpose. We need some shelter from the storms of life. I myself am not my well-crafted and polished self today. I’ve been anxiously wrestling, again, with Philando Castile’s death since the verdict on his killing came down on Friday. It’s the same old: When responsibility for the death of a young black man is decided, who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who gets the break? And who gets the blame?
II. Father Bryan Massingale calls racism a spiritual sickness, a “soul sickness.” Racism doesn’t have to be deliberate or overt. On the contrary, it’s often unconscious or subconscious—but effective nonetheless. Here in this shelter from the storms of life, this sickness can be acknowledged, discussed, and treated: the pain of those of you who have borne the brunt of racism can be listened to and heard; the rest of us can listen and hear what life in a world run by whites is like for a person with a black or brown body. We, intelligent and enlightened as we may be, can confront the fact that we tolerate and perpetuate racism. It’s not a matter of feeling bad or guilty, but paying attention, being honest, acknowledging our unearned privilege, repenting, and being redeemed.
III. When someone remarked to the writer Flannery O’Connor that the Eucharist was just a symbol, albeit a very good one, she replied, “Well, if it’s [just] a symbol, to hell with it.” When it comes to Jesus’ identifying himself with bread and wine, John’s gospel is insistent with the fleshy physicality of it all: eating flesh and drinking blood, ingesting flesh and blood. If we are what we eat, the Eucharist incorporates us—literally brings us into the corpus, the body of Christ, into the life of Jesus, and therefore into the lives of the suffering with whom he identified. The body of Jesus is broken open here, his blood is poured out. Therefore, the “this” we do in memory of him is breaking ourselves open, pouring ourselves out. Yes, working for equality is costly.
Conversion and transformation take place in the hearts and minds and lives of individuals, and individuals change institutions and systems. We must not tire or shrink from Spirit-led, Eucharist-fueled efforts to make what we proclaim in this sacrament real and tangible.
Brothers and sisters:
The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Because the loaf of bread is one,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all partake of the one loaf.
We, though many, are one body.
I. Episcopal priest, Robert Capon, says that when human beings try to describe God, we’re like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina: we don’t have the equipment to understand something so utterly beyond us. (That’s never stopped us from trying.)
II. But not even on Trinity Sunday does scripture attempt an explanation of God. Scripture, rather, records God’s actions: God leaving the heavens today when Moses, in a touching request, asks God to come along with them—“Do come along in our company”; and then the Word becomes flesh, and God comes along with us.
The first Christians had no doctrine of the Trinity, of course. What moved them was not an understanding of God, but their experience of God: their encounter with Jesus Christ, in whom they met God’s love face-to-face; and their Spirit-filled communion, another incarnation of that love.
We are likewise moved when we experience God reaching out to us, seeking the deepest union, coming along beside us in the flesh of one another. Baptism “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is the seal, the sign, the sacrament of that holy communion.
III. This is Richard Rohr’s “Trinity Prayer”:
God For Us, we call You Father.
God Alongside Us, we call You Jesus.
God Within Us, we call You Holy Spirit.
You are the Eternal Mystery
that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things.
Even us, and even me.
Every name falls short of your Goodness and Greatness. We can only see who You are in what is.
We ask for such perfect seeing.
I. “Conspiracy.” Originally a neutral term, the word has a negative connotation in its modern usage, a reference to persons or agencies acting in concert to carry out some sinister plot: like an evil government faking the moon landing, or inventing climate change. Some have contended that all of Christianity, the whole Christian enterprise, is a conspiracy.
And it is. “Conspire” comes from the Latin words, “con”—“together with”—and “spirare”—“to breathe.” “Conspiracy” is breathing together with others.
II. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles finds 120 of Jesus’ disciples and friends hunkered in a room, frightened, confused, bereft: they were stuck. Only when they, together, opened themselves to the Spirit of the Risen Christ, when they, together, began to breathe in the same Spirit, were they invigorated, vivified, empowered, inspired. They found their voice and the courage to use it. The Spirit provokes their “coming out” as a Church. Pentecost is the pinnacle of the Pasch: the end and purpose of those 50 days. Only at Pentecost, with the rush of the Spirit, was it finally clear what it really meant to live through, with, and in Christ.
III. Breathing of the one Spirit makes us vulnerable and open to a power beyond our imagining. Breathing of the same Spirit makes us vulnerable and open to one another. When, for example, we celebrate a bilingual Unity Mass as we did on last Sunday’s Feast of the Ascension, you can feel a bit dislocated when the “other language,” Spanish or English, is being spoken. But that dislocation is exactly what we need to understand the other, especially when the other is marginalized in some way. Above all, our Unity Mass makes us more aware than ever that we’re in this together, joined in a conspiracy: a plan to go up against powerful forces to make sure that the hungry are fed, the immigrant is welcomed, the homeless are sheltered, the sick and dying are comforted and healed. The Spirit animates, transforming faith and Christian understanding into Christian action.
Pentecost affirms that we don’t have to live the way of Jesus Christ on our own, that we mustn’t do it alone, that we can’t do it alone; that life with Christ is inseparable from life with others, life with the Church.
The Jesus Conspiracy: Breathing. Together.
I. “Cook a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you get rid of him for an entire weekend.”
That sounds like something my smart-alecky mother would say. In addition to inheriting her sarcasm and other such gifts, I acquired from my mother an entire way of viewing life, a way of being in the world. As newborns, we don’t differentiate from our mothers, nor does our union with them end at birth. We view the world from her arms, learning about and moving into the new and unknown from her point of view. As an infant, one’s mother is nothing less than the way, the truth, and life.
II. Jesus’ relationship with the Father is complete and thorough: they are one. To see and know Jesus is to see and know the Father. After the Resurrection, Jesus extends that relationship to his disciples, breathing his Spirit into them. Jesus breathes that same Spirit into us at Baptism, and we are joined to him. Eternal life, risen life, new life is being with God, here and now and forever, as Christ is with him. Jesus makes the point that we don’t have to die to enjoy this “eternal life.” Frederick Buechner agrees: “We think of eternal life, if we think of it at all, as what happens when life ends. We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins.”
III. My mom died 14 years ago this week, on the day before Mother’s Day. The loss of someone so central in life, no matter one’s age, can lead to new questions about one’s way, one’s truth, one’s life. That was true for Thomas and Philip who, with Jesus’ impending departure, wondered just where they were going. It’s reasonable that they would be skeptical about going somewhere without knowing the way. Faith is trusting Jesus and going anyway. Jesus is the Way that never ends, the Truth that never changes, the Life that never dies. Do not let your hearts be troubled.
I. Quoting Forrest Gump,
My momma always said there’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes…where they goin’, where they been…
On the day my mother died, I anointed her forehead with blessed oil, and rubbed the oil into her dishpan hands. I was without words, unable, unwilling, to call up the formula for the last rites that I had uttered over hundreds of other dying mothers. Reclaiming a bygone element of the ritual, I also anointed her weathered feet, blessing them for having carried her, carried me, for a lifetime: down many roads of death and resurrection. Surprised by how old they looked, I realized that this might have been the first time I’d ever touched her feet, or even seen them without socks or slippers. I was sad and grateful for that last intimacy.
II. After his death and resurrection, Jesus invited his disciples to look at, to touch, his hands and feet: the hands that had healed, comforted, and fed; hands and feet that, despite his otherwise otherworldly appearance, still bore the very real wounds that he’d acquired along the way. This may have been the first time the disciples looked at or saw those wounds after they’d avoided them, fled from them, from him. Now, the denying Peter, the doubting Thomas, the fleeing disciples, received forgiveness from the Risen Christ, freedom from shame and failure, releasing in them a spirit that transformed them into heroic missionaries and martyrs.
III. Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes,
When the world looks around for the risen Christ, when they want to know what that means, [they look] not at our pretty faces and not at our sincere eyes but at our hands and feet—what we have done with them and where we have gone with them.
Our most credible Christian credentials are our hands and feet, and our wounds: evidence that we’ve not avoided or escaped pain, that we’ve not walked around suffering, but through it. Although we may bear our wounds to the end, we will not be defeated by them.
There’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by their hands and their feet, and their wounds.
I. I have a dog named Chucho. He’s eight months old, my second pug. My first, Max, lived with me at the Basilica, and had the Mass schedule down. Whenever I’d head from my office into the church, he was on my heels, hoping to sneak in with me before the plate glass door slammed shut. That failing, he sat, pug nose to the door, stone-still, like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, staring into my absence. Passersby tried to console him, moved as they were by his more-pathetic-than-usual pug face. One sacristan invariably told him, “He’s never coming back.” But Max was unfazed: he just sat and stared and waited.
One imagines Mary Magdalene doing the same at Jesus’ grave, the place she had to leave him. When she arrived for the third day of her sitting and staring and waiting, he was gone. All she saw was his absence.
II. While we profess with our lips that Jesus is risen, we too often act as if he’s dead. We sit and wait and stare at the tomb, hoping for some razzle-dazzle. We persist in our fear and despair, our stubbornness and self-assurance, our judgment, meanness, and violence, and we shrink from the greatest civil rights challenges of our times. We muscle through, trying to carry on without him. We look for him in the tomb — but he has moved on ahead of us to Galilee. It’s there the disciples saw him again. They became much more than they were before: stronger and wiser, more daring and loving. They became more like him. They became him. They finally understood why Jesus had to die: so that the Christ could rise.
III. Blessed Oscar Romero says that, “Christianity is not a collection of truths that one has to believe, of laws one has to keep, a list of prohibitions… Christianity is a person that loved me so much that he demands my love. Christianity is Christ.” The Christian lives in a way that wouldn’t make sense if Christ wasn’t alive and acting through us: bold, courageous, humble, with a strength and power beyond our own. We live as if death is behind us, because it is.
So, for those distressed at the state of affairs in their family, the community, our country, the world; and in the face of poverty, racial injustice, and the threat of deportation; or with our own spirits weakened from the struggle against despair, we do not retreat from faith and its practice, but stride more deeply and resolutely into our life with the Risen Christ, our only hope. If we are risen with him, we will endure his Passion, our Passion, with him. Let us come with faith to the banquet of the Lamb, our Passover, our life, the true and risen Body of Christ, spirit and power, fire. Sharing his banquet, we pass with him from death to life, from despair to hope. Alleluia!
h/t: Thomas Merton
I. Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
The ancients used to wrap their newly dead the same way they wrapped their newly born: swaddled in strips of cloth. Wrapped as such, it must have been difficult for Lazarus to make it out of his sepulcher to the entrance of the cave. As dramatic as those words, “Lazarus, come out!” are, it’s what Jesus says next, after his friend finally appears, swaddled head to foot, that always touches me: “Untie him and let him go free.”
II. The promise of Lazarus, the grace that brought his new life, transforms all the dyings we endure, everything from which we need to be unbound; it frees us from our tombs—those of our own construction or those we’re consigned to.
How many of us want the Lord to “untie” someone we love, someone who needs to be freed from whatever binds them. How many of us have begged the Lord, “Untie me”?
• Untie me, for I am bound with an addiction—food, alcohol, drugs, work, play—addicted to impatience, gossip, anger, negativity.
• Untie me, for I am bound to privilege, racism, self-righteousness.
• Untie me, Lord, from my anxiety and fear—fear of the different, the difficult, afraid to stand for, or speak out.
• Untie me, Lord! And let me go free.
III. Resurrection isn’t merely an ultimate, extravagant, end-of-life miracle. Resurrection is the transforming presence of Jesus Christ alive in us this very moment. Eternal life is a reality we can possess now, a quality of living that is beyond death’s reach, more durable than death’s grip. The risen life is resilience, it’s a strength beyond our own, a power we didn’t know we had.
As Jesus asked Martha, he asks us: “Do you believe this?”
I. I’m always a little bugged when someone makes a point of telling me that they’re “spiritual, but not religious”—because, of course, “religious” is what I do. Or perhaps I’m afraid that I’m “religious, but not spiritual.”
Some people steer clear of religion, I would guess, because of Pharisees. Every religious institution has them: those who don’t hesitate to judge what is of God and what is not. Barbara Brown Taylor describes them as “law-abiding, pledge-paying, creed-saying, theologically correct people who can spot a heretic a mile away.” Jesus regularly encounters those types, those who have all the answers, who are certain that they see.
Today, a blind man regains his sight—not an uncommon occurrence in the gospels—and the Pharisees are baffled, determined to get to the bottom of it. The situation didn’t conform to what they thought they knew about how God behaved. Their presumptions prevented them from perceiving the hand of God right in front of their eyes. The blind man himself couldn’t explain what happened, but he knew it was real. Unencumbered by ideas about how God was supposed to work, he was free to experience God’s amazing grace.
II. Richard Rohr says that human beings do not naturally see: we have to be taught how to see. That’s what religion is for. Jesus is not present in the Eucharist alone: he’s always and everywhere present; we’re in his presence before we get here and after we leave. But here we remember, we recall that presence that we lose sight of, say, 99% of the time. The Eucharist corrects our vision: we learn to see the presence of God that always and everywhere is.
III. God is never absent: what’s absent is our awareness. When we’re aware that Jesus sees us as he saw the blind man, and that we are always in his sight, we begin to see.
I. A friend once shared with me her experience of the Sacrament of Penance, going back some 30 years. On that occasion, she was reluctant to confess something in particular, embarrassed by what she’d grappled with time and again. After nervously confessing her struggle, the priest said to her, “Me too.” She’s never forgotten that healing moment.
II. For the Samaritan woman at the well, the glare of the noonday sun allows for no secrets. She can’t hide the truth of who she really is. Jesus “gets” her: he sees her clearly and regards her with dignity. He addresses her past both knowingly and compassionately. Unaccustomed to such tenderness, the rules and taboos and fears that distance her from the Jewish man at the well evaporate.
This is a story of the healing and transforming power of love and, in light of that love, the emergence of one’s essential identity. Jesus evokes in the woman a self-appraisal that lifts her above and beyond the disfiguring circumstances of her past. In response to such regard, she becomes not only a disciple, but an evangelizer: many came to believe in Jesus because of her word.
III. Writer Paul Elie suggests that the Church is not, first of all, a “school for obedience,” a transmitter of moral laws. Rather, he says, the Church is, above all else, the “point of entry for the Christian adventure”—as it is for our catechumens, our elect, Yoshio, Yoselin, Yahir, Kevin, Kevin, and Kevin, Kalindi, Julian, Jonathan, Jason, Flor, Dayhana, and Alexander, soon to be baptized. They embody the meaning of Lent for us: they compel us to return to our baptism, remembering that we belong to God. For them, and for the rest of us, the Church is first and always the sacrament of our encounter with Jesus Christ—a well of living water—where we discover and develop our essential identities as beloved children of God, disciples and evangelizers. By coming to know Jesus—the embracing, empowering, loving manifestation of God—we come to know who we are: the embraced, the empowered, the beloved, no matter our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or immigrant status.
The incarnation of Jesus, his passion, death, and resurrection, and perhaps the entire Christian enterprise, can be crystallized in two words: “Me too.”
I. After I sat down to pray on Friday, I found myself thinking how badly I wanted a peanut butter cookie. And then I ran through my schedule for the day. And then I thought about the weird noise that the dog was making. And then I became preoccupied with others’ much more significant preoccupations: the immigrants who constantly agonize about the fate of their children. This flurry of activity in our heads is called “monkey mind,” a concept that goes all the way back to Buddha, who described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, screeching, chattering, carrying on, all clamoring for attention.
II. All alone in a desert, you’d expect to suffer a pretty serious case of monkey mind. So it was for Jesus. The devil’s cajoling exploited Jesus’ spiritual struggles and vulnerabilities. In the face of the tempter’s chatter, Jesus neither fights nor flees. Considering that he was facing the Prince of Darkness, the conversation is remarkably gentle. Still wet with his baptism, Jesus remained confident and true to who he knew himself to be, the apple of his Father’s eye. He faced temptation calm and steady, grounded in his experience of divine love. He would go on to face all the trials and sufferings of his life, including death, in the same way. He lived out of his soul.
III. Whether in the desert, a prayer room or the kitchen, or right here in church, our monkey mind is always active, distracting us, testing us, tempting us, luring us away from who we really are. The monkeys pose a thousand-and-one “what ifs” and “should haves,” kicking up anxiety, doubt, and fear. They exploit our vulnerabilities, enticing us to satisfy with so many pacifiers those appetites that only God can answer. And, for the same reason that the Spirit led Jesus to the desert they present us with innumerable opportunities to reach into the resources to resist temptation: God and grace.
We must decide to what we’ll surrender: a cookie or prayer, the monkeys or God, death or life.