Ascension Church

Homilies from Sunday masses

Homily, Aug. 27, 2017


I. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Rilke encourages a 19-year-old aspiring artist that understanding and experiencing the world around him is the way to truth. In one letter, Rilke writes that, because we have more questions than answers, we must try to love the questions. He writes,


Do not now seek the answers…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.



II. “Live the questions.” And there are many questions today, right? Neo-Nazis? White supremacy? How did we get back here? Why are we still here?
Jesus asks a stunning question of his disciples today: “Who do you say that I am?” Imagine a spouse, or parent, or friend asking you that question. The question, and its response, would define everything.


III. When we truly hear and understand the question—“Who do you say that I am?”—and who is asking it, we begin to understand who we are and whose we are. We understand ourselves to be those whom the living Christ sees, those to whom he speaks, those he seeks, those he pursues, those he has chosen to continue his mission. So, if Jesus were to pose this question today, how would I answer, and what would be the implications of that answer?


• You are the Christ, the one who will establish justice on the earth for people of all races and lands—and I offer my gifts and services to you in this venture.

• You are the Christ, the one who will ensure that the vulnerable and marginalized will not be exploited, that the immigrant will not be disrespected—and I will stand with you in their defense.
• You are the Christ, the one who will usher in the kingdom of peace—and I commit myself to the practice of peace in all my relationships.
• You are the Christ, the one who will refashion us into a holy people and nation—and I open myself to any transformation necessary to be your disciple.


“Who do you say that I am?” Live the question. Live that question.


h/t: Dianne Bergant

Homily, Aug. 20, 2017

I. It’s hard being a mom. In an Associated Press article titled, “A Tortured Choice in Famine,” it was reported that, when the 3-year-old son of Faqid Nur Elmi died of hunger and thirst on the road to Kenya from Somalia, his mother could only surround his body with small dried branches to serve as a grave. She couldn’t stop to mourn—there were five other children to think about. “Where will I get the energy to dig up a grave for him?” she asked. “I was just thinking of how I can save the rest of the children.”


II. The mom in today’s gospel story is trying to save her daughter. If she had been seeking help for herself, she might have given up. But there’s nothing that fuels a mother’s audacity more than concern for her child’s well-being. She’s ready to cross whatever boundaries she needs to cross, to do whatever it takes. She tries “noisy and assertive,” then “pleading and compliant,” finally “clever and confrontative.” Her baby is sick, and if this Jesus guy could help, by God, he’s going to.


III. The “great faith” that Jesus attributes to this mother is not only her belief in God, but her single-minded, persistent, unrelenting commitment to making her beloved’s situation better, and finding a way to accomplish it. Among the women of great faith whom I know are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who founded Ascension School and served here for decades. On Friday, they issued a statement in response to last week’s violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is valuable for our multi-racial, largely immigrant faith community.


As Sisters of St. Joseph, we are called to build a more unified and peaceful society. We believe mutuality can only happen when we acknowledge and deepen our understanding of our racism. These recent events are symptomatic of rises in hate crimes, violence and deep-seated racial injustice. The acts of violence on minority and racially diverse groups have been misconstrued as individual acts rather than recognizing the more historic and systemic ideology of racial hatred…We are called to “profound love” in action by being unifiers and reconcilers for peace, healing, and anti-racism. We denounce hatred of any kind….We recommit ourselves to nonviolence by our life style, charism, action, prayer and participation with others in challenging dehumanizing and violent actions…


If the evidence of “great faith” is single-minded, persistent, and unrelenting commitment to making the situation better and finding a way to accomplish it, just how great is our faith?
h/t: John Shea

Homily, Aug. 13, 2017


I. My six years as the associate pastor at the Basilica of Saint Mary allowed me a thousand passes up and down the worn steps of its prominent high pulpit. At the top, imprinted in the marble floor, was a pair of footprints, about a size ten, left behind by a century of well-polished preachers. It was my favorite place in the world to stand, resting in those footprints—until I got to my next parish and stood at that pulpit in those footprints. And now, here. I love standing here: it’s safe, secure, familiar. Here I have a script: I don’t work without a net. Standing here, I don’t get my well-polished shoes dirty, or my feet wet.


II. One would think that the disciples are frightened today because of all that wind and those waves. But such sudden storms are frequent on the Sea of Galilee: these fishermen wouldn’t have been surprised by the weather. So what were they afraid of? They thought they saw a ghost. They thought Jesus was a ghost.


Leave it to Peter, he who frequently had his foot in his mouth, to be the one to dare to put his foot into the water, unafraid to get his feet wet. When he faltered, he reached for the hand of Jesus, trusting that he would find it there, that Jesus was real, that he was no ghost.


III. Too often, we profess with our lips that Jesus lives, that Jesus is, but in reality we fear he’s just a ghost, a phantom, a fake. We’re afraid to step out of the boat (or the pulpit), out of our comfort zone, without a script or a net, into those pesky winds and waves and storms and squalls, because we don’t really believe Jesus is there.


The gospel calls us to go to the margins, the peripheries, to unsafe, unfamiliar places. Whether these days it’s walking into the terrifying hurricane our immigrant brothers and sisters are facing, or the roiling waters of white supremacy and racism, or the daily storms faced by the poor and marginalized, we must hold fast to the fact that we are not alone, that we are never without the steadying hand of Jesus, who in his love and concern walks across the waters to reassure and steady us. Again and again and again, the living Lord, stretching out his hand, encourages us to take heart. Take courage. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.
h/t: Karoline Lewis

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.