Ascension Church

Homilies from Sunday masses

Homily, July 23, 2017


I. Theologian John Shea tells of a man who took the spiritual quest seriously. He went on a prolonged retreat, and when he came back, he was loving, considerate, and compassionate. That is, until his mother came to visit.
We all move from being centered to being scattered, from having it together to being fractured: a few steps forward, a few steps back. We are, at the same time, saint and sinner. As Shea says, “We are repeat offenders, and so we become ‘repeat repenters.’” We’re wheat and weeds.


II. Especially to gardeners, Jesus’ advice today may be confounding. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, good and evil side by side. It’s God’s prerogative alone to judge between them. Our response is to intensify our practice of faith, hope, and love, to be good wheat: to mind our business, and leave the rest to the master gardener.


III. When there appear to be more weeds than wheat in our world, when we don’t know what to pray for anymore, St. Paul reminds us today that, at these times, the Spirit does the praying, interceding for us with “inexpressible groanings,” with sighs too deep for words. When we ourselves don’t have the words for prayer, St. Francis de Sales says,


When you come before the Lord, talk to Him if you can; if you can’t, just stay there, let yourself be seen, and don’t try too hard to do anything else.


If we give ourselves to a life of unrelenting faith in God and God’s action, God will take care of the rest. In the landscape of God’s kingdom, what appear to be weeds will ripen into wheat; good endures, life wins. In God’s Kingdom, it’s always too soon for discouragement, too soon to pull up the weeds.


Homily, July 16, 2017

I. Washington. Russia. North Korea. North Minneapolis. Mexico. Syria. Twitter. I, like you, am wearied by today’s social and political rancor, being inundated with unsettling news. On top of all that, everything that having a personal life brings.


II. Fully aware of everything that conspires to bring us down, Jesus simply offers a parable. It’s worth noting that today’s tale is titled, “The Parable of the Sower” and not, “The Parable of Various Types of Soil.” Jesus doesn’t focus on us and our flaws and shortcomings—the rocks, the thorns, the weeds. Rather, he emphasizes the extravagant, indiscriminate, prolific, prodigious, and prodigal Sower who, despite the challenges and obstacles, keeps reaching into his seed bag and flinging those precious seeds. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit.


After two millennia of sowing the word of Jesus Christ—or better, sowing Jesus Christ, because he himself is the seed—we might, at times, be disheartened or cynical about how little good has come of all of it. On the other hand, given how inhospitable the world can be, we might be amazed how effective God’s word has been. After all, here we are, two thousand years after these words were first spoken, still listening to them: they matter.


III. In those moments when God’s word seems ineffective and lifeless, remember that, despite the odds, we’re still here, ready for, open to, a revelation. In a society and world that groans with labor pains, we are God’s best hope that God’s word will accomplish its purpose. Jesus, this very day, invites each of us to live his parable, to participate in the mission: to be the soil, the seed, the sowers.


Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.


That’s the promise.



Homily, July 9, 2017


I. As you leave the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, you see across the street a four-story-high bronze statue of the Greek god, Atlas. He’s carrying the earth on his back, bearing the weight of the world. Someone said that the statue reminds those exiting the church that they are reentering the world of the other gods: deadlines, troubles, burdens, and worries: the weight of the world that we all carry on our backs.

II. Today, amidst all of that, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest.” Jesus appeals to those who are weighed down: those burdened by anxiety or woe; the hard-working and the world-weary; those who fret about yesterday, tomorrow, or today. Jesus invites those of us who are excessively responsible and controlling to let go of our illusion of self-sufficiency, to give it a rest. The soul will find rest when we come to believe and know Jesus as our constant companion, that he’s in it with us, living within us, helping to carry the load, always walking us forward toward life.


III. The poet, Rainer Rilke, portrays this spiritual rest in his poem, “The Swan.” After describing the awkward, labored steps of the swan on land, he writes that,


…The letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to everyday is like the swan when he nervously lets himself

down into the water which receives him gaily and which flows under and after him, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment, more fully grown, more like a king, farther and farther on.


“Pleased to be carried.” That’s the rest that Jesus provides.
h/t: Greg Kandra

Homily, June 25, 2017

I. No fewer than three times in the past three days, someone has said to me, “It had been my worst fear. And it happened.” In one case, losing a job after twenty-some years; in another, brain cancer; and another, a brilliant, young daughter tormented with bipolar disorder dies of suicide. When “worst fears” really do get realized, how can Jesus say, with a straight face, “Don’t be afraid”?


II. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More says that our natural path lies in escaping. And why not? Jesus himself wanted his cup of suffering to pass. He feared the future, and knew that those who followed his way would have many reasons to fear the future. But something greater than fear gripped him. It was the disarmingly simple truth that, although God doesn’t stop the fall of a sparrow, its falling doesn’t go unnoticed. Our falling, our living, and our dying are within God’s knowing, within the Father’s care. While that faith may not entirely conquer fear, it controls and contains it; it makes fear less frightening.


III. In my conversation with one of those whose worst fear was realized, I said that I was hesitant to predictably and simplistically tell him that something good would come out of his suffering. He responded, “But that’s what I want you to tell me.”


If we follow Jesus’ way, we will have many reasons to fear the future. If we follow Jesus through inevitable and unavoidable suffering, we will also follow him to inevitable and unavoidable glory. Predictable, simplistic, and true.



Homily, July 2, 2017


I. Something was trying to get into his mouth. He clenched his teeth.
“You were asking for water.”
He opened his eyes. Something, someone, a person, a woman, a girl, bent over him with a paper cup.
He tried to raise his head to drink properly. It was impossible. Pains shot up his neck. Very well. He had broken his neck. He opened his mouth and she poured water into it. There are few joys greater than drinking cool water after a serious thirst.

From Walker Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.


II. Have you heard of the “butterfly effect?” It’s the concept that small causes can have big consequences. For example, a tornado or hurricane can be influenced by the distant flapping of a butterfly’s wings several weeks earlier. Scientifically valid or not, the metaphor has meaning for the moral life.


What is the outcome, the butterfly effect, of an act of kindness? Consider today’s first reading. A woman of influence invites Elisha, a holy man of God to dine, and then extends that hospitality by arranging a room for him to stay in. The outcome? Elisha promises that she will be blessed with a baby son. That’s one heck of a butterfly effect. Jesus knows that merely offering a cup of water to someone who is in some way thirsty, someone who may be lost in a desert or wasteland, may have an effect beyond one’s knowing or imagining.


III. As great as our own thirst may be, God’s thirst, God’s yearning for us, for our attention, our love, our life, is even greater. God wants to dine with us, God seeks a room, an open heart, in which to rest in us, God thirsts for us. Paradoxically, when we respond to God’s thirst for us, our own thirst is quenched: that’s the reward, Jesus says, that surely won’t be lost.
There are few joys greater than drinking cool water after a serious thirst.
h/t: Mary Elizabeth Sperry

Homily, June 18, 2017


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.


Homily, June 11, 2017


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.


Homily, June 4, 2017


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.


Homily, May 14, 2017

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.



Homily, April 23, 2017


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.