The following is a homily for the fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

I have a friend who is an absolute model citizen. He is among the most principled people I know: he works hard, is dedicated to his family, gives to charity, reads the Bible and prays every day, and is just a genuinely nice guy. I remember walking with him once in the city one night when a woman, carrying two big bags, tripped and fell in the street. Without hesitation, he jumped right in front of a moving car to stop her from getting hit, helped her pick up her belongings, and made sure she got to the sidewalk safely. If I were in trouble, I don’t think it would matter what time it was or what I was doing, he would get in his car and drive for hours to help me. Truly, my friend is a heroic man in the most ordinary of situations.

And yet, this friend is not without his flaws. His principles have a way, sometimes, of getting in the way of compassion—he can be quick to judgment, holding people to unfair standards. He struggles to see why anyone would have a different opinion than himself, and has been known from time to time to be somewhat offensive in the name of righteousness. He jumped right in front of a moving car to protect that woman, yes, but then spent the next two minutes making fun of her for being drunk and condemning the woman for her bad decisions. I may call him in a crisis, but I’ve also muted him on Facebook because I’ve had enough of his condescension. Truly, my friend is kind of a jerk sometimes.

And so I ask you. Having heard what you have about my friend, would you say that he is a good person or a bad person? Put another way, where do you think he would fit into Jesus’ parable today?

We hear this passage every year, it’s one of the most familiar parables to us, and so I want to put it to action. Where does my friend fit? Is he the path among the birds, hearing the word but falling to the devil’s wishes? Is he rocky ground, loving God for a moment but then quickly getting bored with Christian life? Is he like the thorns, tricked by riches and anxiety of the world? Maybe he’s the perfect rich soil, completely accepting God in his life in every way.

If you ask me… it’s not so clear. He’s kind of a mixed bag. Like, you know, all of us.

Unfortunately, we have this tendency sometimes to use grand labels, to put others, to put ourselves, into big “black and white” categories. People are good or bad. Good people are always good and always do good things, and bad people are always bad and always do bad things. We know, obviously, that this is not true. Our human experience is far more complicated than this. There aren’t just two categories of people. We don’t always act consistently.

You can be an incredible mother to your children, sacrificing your wants and needs for their sake… while at the same time being kind of lazy and inconsiderate to your coworkers.

You can be extremely charitable, giving to nonprofits and going on mission trips… while also being a bit racist.

You can be humble and loving in one moment only to be grouchy and unforgiving in the next.

It’s not that we all have schizophrenia or that we’re not suffering from split personality disorder—this is just the nature of being human. As beings that are both spirit and flesh, imperfect beings with free will, none of us goes through this world as wholly good or wholly bad. Each and every one of us, each and every one of our friends, each and every one of our enemies, has the possibility of goodness, the capacity to hear the word of God and produce abundant fruit. There are times when we are the good soil. In just the same way, we also have the possibility of doing evil, the capacity to ignore God’s word and do what we want, to grow very little. Sometimes, we are the path, the rocky soil, the thorns.

Even the saints weren’t perfect soil all of the time but struggled with sin even to their death. Remember what St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” This is not Paul before his conversion, Paul before meeting Christ. This is Paul the Apostle, Paul the great saint called to build the Church. And yet, he still struggles with temptation, still struggles with sin. He does what he hates. He writes in his letter today that “all creation is groaning in labor pains.” This is what he means. There is a tension within us, that even the best among us can be rocky at times, can fail to produce good fruit. Yes, even the greatest of saints remain sinners.

Similarly, even the worst of sinners can, from time to time, be good soil and do heroic things. In the book of Joshua, it is Rahab, a prostitute, who saves the Israelites, who acts heroically for the mission of God. The reason that Moses fled Egypt in Exodus 2 was because he killed a guy. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, thought about what he was going to do in a premeditated fashion, and killed a guy. This was the man God used to free his people, the greatest of the prophets in the Old Testament. Was Rahab good soil or rocky soil? Was Moses good soil or rocky soil?

When I hear this parable from Jesus, I don’t think of these four categories as rigid, permanent states of life, that we all fit perfectly into one of these boxes and never stray from them. What I hear Jesus saying is that he is the word come down from heaven, he is the seed looking for a place to grow. Sometimes, we’re not open to him in our lives. In some situations, we’re a path, a rocky soil, thorns. But other times, in other situations, what we should strive for at all times, we can be good soil. What I hear him saying, what I have experienced myself, is that each moment is a new opportunity. No matter how good or bad you have acted before, every new situation gives us the option to choose: am I going to hear God’s word and nurture it, or am I going to throw it away?

It’s in looking at the parable in this way that I exhort you to one simple thing this week: stop labeling people. There is no such thing as someone who is pure goodness. There is no one who is pure evil. We, all of us, are complex mixes. Not a single one of us is a barren wasteland with no possibility of growth, and not a single one of us is perfect soil without any rocks or weeds. Each and every one of us is a wide open field with some good soil and some not so good soil.

To label someone bad and dismiss them because of something they’ve done—he’s a criminal, she’s an adulterer—is the epitome of judging people as Jesus forbids. It takes who a person was on their worst day and treats them as if that is the totality of their being. It’s just not true. It’s not fair. And it’s not loving. Rather than seeing someone as a label, as a broad category, we as Christians must see the person before us, the mix of good and bad. How many Rahabs have we missed in our lives? How many Moseses have we condemned? When we label people as bad, judge them and dismiss them, we fail to see what God sees in them—a beautiful creation with such great potential.

But it goes the other direction as well. To label someone as good and accept everything they do as good, fails to see how we all need to grow in holiness. My friend has heroic qualities. He is a loving father, a principled man, someone who looks to God in all that he does. And that’s great. But let’s not forget that he, too, has some things to work on. Even he, in all of his virtue, still has some vices to work out. All of us do. If we truly care about being holy, truly care about being disciples of Christ, fit for the kingdom, it is not enough to say that we’re “good people,” that we don’t have flaws or that they don’t matter. Even the best among us have rocky soil.

Where is that for you? What is the rocky soil of your life? When are you not at your best, not open to letting Christ live in you?

Be honest with yourself. You may have acres and acres of good soil, and that’s great, but the seed is dying wherever there are rocks. Find those areas where Christ cannot grow, where your heart is hardened, and till the ground. As long as we have one rock in our field, as long as there are still thorns growing, we’ve got some work to do.

Don’t Get Used to This!

The following is a homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Being able to stay connected with our worshiping community even in the midst of a pandemic is great. What a blessing!

And yet, it is not the same. It is not something to get used to. On this feast of Corpus Christi, we are reminded why we gather for Mass, and what the fullness of that celebration should be.

The following is a homily for the Feast of Pentecost, Year A. The readings can be found here.

For those who are still wondering if God has a sense of humor, I point you to today’s Gospel. Here we are on the first weekend open for public masses, in a world where we’re trying to get people to stay home, to social distance, to cover their mouths—and we get a Gospel criticizing those who stayed home in fear and Jesus straight up breathing on the disciples. As a preacher you just have to look at that and go… are you kidding me?

Luckily, there are other readings to talk about, and so we’re going to hold off on the Gospel for a second and focus on the image we’re given in the first reading. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the Pentecost event, describing it as something coming from the sky like a “strong driving wind.” If you look to most other English versions of the Bible, this phrase is translated as a “rush of a violent wind.” This is not some light summer breeze. You don’t feel this air on your face and go, “Oh, isn’t that refreshing. Isn’t that nice.” When I hear “strong driving wind” or “rush of a violent wind,” I think of my days in Chicago where the wind was so strong that it could literally knock you over. Walking to seminary each day in my habit, basically a human sail, I was afraid of being swept up sometimes, just blown away. For those here in the southeast, I think of the powerful hurricane winds that rush through our coasts each year. What a terrifying display of power, wind so strong that it can uproot full-grown trees, hurl debris through windows, even topple houses. Look to a city after a hurricane runs through and you will see what a “strong driving wind” can do, what a “rush of violent wind” can accomplish. Wind has the power to destroy.

But interestingly enough, it can also be absolutely life-giving as well. As much as the violent winds of a hurricane cause damage to property, they also churn up the deep waters of the ocean, infusing oxygen into the water and bringing nutrient-rich water to islands and coastal lands. They distribute warm water to colder regions and work to break up bacteria and red tide. Despite their violence, Hurricanes actually replenish dying ecosystems. Where life is stagnant, where things are dying, “strong driving winds” bring life.

A destructive, life-giving force. What a perfect description of the Pentecost event; what a wonderful image of the Holy Spirit. 

On the one hand, the Spirit does come to destroy… injustice, that is; to break down all that acts against the Kingdom of God. Whenever God is angered in the Bible by oppression, idolatry, or murder, we hear that the winds are raging, that he has sent a scorching wind. The Egyptians were cast into the sea; the false prophets were killed by blowing fire; Jonah was caught in a violent storm; idols and temples to other gods were burned down. Like a hurricane, like a violent wind, the Spirit comes to his people to tear down what stands in the way of justice. Thus, those who were prophets, people filled with the Holy Spirit to speak on behalf of God, brought destruction with their words. Think about Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. Were these men who asked nicely, who came in like a nice summer breeze, politely requesting that people change? No. They came to the people like a violent wind—“Stop abusing the poor! Stop putting your own people into slavery! Stop worshiping false idols… or you will be destroyed!” They condemned oppressors, cried out for justice. The Spirit, living in them, rolled in like a hurricane to tear down everything in its path.

But this same spirit, this violent wind, also came to bring life. In the very beginning, remember that it was the wind that separated the land from the sea to allow for life; after the flood of destruction, it was the wind that dried up the waters to make it livable again; it was the violent wind that parted the Red Sea, leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom; all throughout Scripture, it was the west wind that came from the sea, bringing moisture to the land, saving the people from famine. Just as a driving wind was sent by God to express his anger, so too, is one sent to accomplish his saving, life-giving work. Just like a hurricane, this strong driving wind churns up what is stagnant, awakens what is dormant, gives life to what is dying. It does not simply denounce injustice, it breathes life; it helps to build a just society. The Old Testament prophets didn’t just bring anger at injustice, they brought consolation for the oppressed, hope for the future, a reminder that God was with them always. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is like a driving wind: he has the power to destroy and give life, all for the sake of the Kingdom.

This is the Spirit that Jesus breathes into his disciples at Pentecost, and the Spirit that lives in us. That violent wind, that strong driving wind, lives in you and in me because Jesus has anointed us with it. That violent wind is alive in our world, just as he was with the Old Testament prophets, because we are his hands and feet. As baptized Christians, those sent out on Christ’s mission, we are that driving wind; we are that rush of violent wind.

As a church, we must be a force of destruction against injustice, a people who tear down all that is against the kingdom of God. We stand against affronts to life like abortion and euthanasia; we demand justice in the face of oppression and poverty; we cry out like a violent wind, breathing out the spirit in the world when others have had their breath taken away. How utterly disgusting it is to see racism continue to rear its ugly head this week—a woman lying to the cops in an attempt to hurt a black man; a police officer killing a man in handcuffs, kneeling on his windpipe for 9 minutes while he choked “I can’t breathe.” How do you think the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, feels about someone taking another’s breath away? How do you think he feels about those who stood by and watched, refusing to speak up, to give their own breath? As a people in the Spirit, those who have been anointed at Pentecost, now is not the time to stay silent; now is not the time to keep our breath to ourselves—like a violent wind, we must cry out for justice, we must rush in and destroy all that is against the Kingdom.

But we must also work to bring life. Being a prophet, being anointed in the Spirit, being a violent wind in our world, means being a destructive force, yes, but it also means being a life-giving force as well. It means being that wind that brings the rain to dry land, life to those who hunger and thirst. It means churning up what is good and spreading it around, bringing warmth to those who are cold. Just like the Old Testament prophets, it means being a voice of hope, of consolation, of reconciliation. Look at our world today and we see so many disparate voices, so much division. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings together all of those languages, all of those people who cannot communicate, and makes them one people in peace.

Yes, I tell you, if we are anointed in the Spirit, if we are filled with what Christ has left us, if we want to build the kingdom of God in our midst, a warm summer breeze simply won’t do. The Spirit is a violent wind come to shake up this world, and we are his hands and feed. Rush out into the world, and don’t go quietly.

The following is a homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Technology is amazing these days, isn’t it? Despite being trapped at home, away from everyone we know, we can just pull out our phones, open our computers, and not only hear the voices of our friends and family, but see them. During lent, the students at UGA got together each Friday and prayed the stations of the cross together. This week, the women’s group hosted more than 30 people on one call for prayer and fellowship. I mean, c’mon: My family has been getting together every so often for a virtual happy hour. Just stay grab a drink wherever you are and hang out with the family.

It’s absolutely amazing. It’s like they’re in the room with us. It’s why everyone is completely fine social distancing, feeling like everything is normal, no one thinks they’re missing anything at all and hope that we stay like this forever!

Okay, maybe not.

Even with the advances in technology, something is missing. It’s not the same. No matter how spectacular it is that we have this, many of us are starting to get a bit tired of it, wishing we had more, realizing how important it actually is to be in the same room with someone, to have a physical presence. It is not enough to have a voice, not enough to have a vision—there is something to this bodily experience that really, really matters.

Unfortunately, we too often have a limited view of the human person, a dreadful one, really.
Whether conscious or not, we have this sense that a person is simply soul trapped in the body, that when you die, your soul is freed and goes to heaven, while the body stays here and doesn’t matter. We see it in cartoons and movies all of the time, and I suspect that many people believe that that is how things actually work. But that is not what we believe. In fact, it’s kind of a heresy. Look at the Apostles Creed, pay special attention to the very end: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Ever notice this? It’s pretty important, actually. Against this notion that we are just souls trapped in a human body, what it says is that we believe in the inherent importance of the body, that it will be with us, even in heaven. We believe that the soul animates the body and the body gives substance to the soul, that they exist together as one, that you cannot know a person without their body.

So why do I bring up this up? You see, today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension, the culminating moment of the resurrection, really, the culminating moment of Jesus’ life on earth, when he returned to heaven. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We’ve heard 100 times over the past few weeks that Jesus came from the Father, and he will return to the Father. He lived among us for a while, and now reigns in heaven. But what part of him reigns in heaven? Just his divine spirit? Just his disembodied soul?

I think not.

When Jesus was resurrected, he had a physical body. Remember the other stories we’ve heard this Easter
Thomas touches the wounds in his flesh. Pretty tough to do if you’re just a spirit. Jesus shares a meal with those on the road to Emmaus. Pretty much impossible without a body. While we don’t know exactly how it worked or what he looked like, we know that when he was resurrected, he had a body, and when he ascended to heaven, he left nothing behind. All of him—not just his soul, but his body as well—ascended into heaven to live forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This point was so important to the early Christians that a devotion began to develop around what was believed to be his footprints at the ascension, the place where his body literally made marks in the earth before he left. Look to famous paintings of the ascension, and you will see footprints on the ground below his feet. This was not just some spirit rising, it was a whole person.

But again, you might be wondering, why is this any of this important? What’s it got to do with me? I tell you, everything. This very fact may be the most important detail for us in the whole Bible: The fact that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, taking with him his physical body, his human nature, opened the door for our own eternity in heaven. Think about it: our human natures—our bodies, something God created, something finite, something contingent—now exists in eternity, never to be lost or forgotten. At the Annunciation and Christmas, feasts of the Incarnation, we celebrate the fact that Jesus came to be like us, but now on the feast of the Ascension we celebrate the reason for it all: Jesus came to be like us, so that we could become like God. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus say that he was returning to the father, that he was preparing a place for us in heaven, that this place was not to be found in some temple but in the heart of God. This is what he meant. We have a place in God because our natures, our bodies, something completely other than God, now exists in God. We will live forever in heaven, body and soul, because Christ ascended with his human nature, body and soul, to make room for us.

So, yeah. Our bodies matter. And so do the bodies of those we serve. I hear people say it all the time, that the role of the priest is to save souls, and that’s it. We shouldn’t be getting into social work or politics or social justice. All that matters is the soul, they say. But as we can see, this is clearly not the case. Knowing what we know about Jesus’ Ascension, hearing his command in this passage, we know that we are called to serve the whole person. As he leaves his followers for the last time, he gives one final command: make disciples of all nations. He doesn’t say to go save souls, doesn’t say that our mission is simply to teach divine truths. He says make disciples, make people who do what he did, who want to go where he went.
And what did Jesus do? He gave the hungry food, cured their illnesses, cared intimately about the entire person, not just the soul. For if a body is hungry, if a body is abused, if a body is left in destitution… the soul will suffer as well. The two cannot be separated: the soul gives life to the body, and the body gives substance to the soul. If we are to be true believers in the resurrection, making people true disciples of Jesus, then we must teach, yes, but we must also heal, feed, console, and protect, just as Jesus did. We must care not just about the soul, but the body as well.

It is not enough to have Zoom calls to fully experience someone we love. It is not enough to watch the mass from home for the rest of our lives. It is not enough to treat the soul and ignore the body. Christ shows us that the body is integral to everything we do, that it has a place in heaven, and so we must do everything we can here on earth to honor and cherish it. Our own, and our neighbors’.

You Are a Temple of the Lord

Today’s video is my homily for the 3rd Sunday in Easter. The readings can be found here.

Once again, I find myself a bit behind posting videos to the blog. Here is a video I posted on Friday: