Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Watch That Doesn't Tell Time

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Year A
Not too long ago, a famous watch-maker from Switzerland announced the launch of a newly-designed watch that is made partially from metal salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic. The cost: $300,000, and, believe it or not, the initial run of 9 watches sold out in less than 48 hours. But there’s a catch: this luxury watch doesn’t tell time. Instead, there are two dials on the watch that use the latest technology and craftsmanship simply to tell you whether it’s day or night. According to the watchmaker, the watch transcends our typical understanding of time, and, especially if you can afford such a watch, suggests that we don’t need something to tell us what time it is. In the ultimate luxury or foolishness, you can spend over a quarter of a million dollars for a watch that tells you the same thing you can find out by looking out a window for free: whether it’s day or night.

In some ways, this watch can help us understand the most central tenet of our faith, the belief that we celebrate today: the Trinity. Just as this day or night watch can only vaguely tell us what time it is, so too any attempt we make at explaining the Trinity ends up being vague and imprecise and a mere shadow of who God really is. When we look at the watch that doesn’t tell time, we can find out one crucial piece of information – whether it is day or night. But the specifics about what part of day or night it is are shrouded in mystery. The same is true for our understandings of the Trinity. Think of St. Patrick’s famous example of the shamrock, with three leaves on one stem. Or, even better, think of an egg, which is made up of a shell, the white, and the yolk – three distinct realities, none of which is an egg in and of itself, but all of which are necessary to make up an egg. The Trinity is something like this – three distinct persons, none of whom are God in themselves, but all of whom a necessary part of God. That’s definitely part of who God is as a Trinity, but the specifics are shrouded in mystery. To hope to understand everything there is to know about the Trinity would be like being able to give the exact time, down to the millisecond, by looking at the $300,000 day-or-night watch.

But there is an important difference between the Trinity and this timeless watch. With the watch, the whole idea is that people who can afford such a useless timepiece don’t need something to tell them what time it is – they aren’t restrained by the trappings of time. But for us who call ourselves Christian, we can’t just step back and say, “Well, since I’ll never be able to completely understand the Trinity, why even try? If it’s just a mystery, why bother with God at all?” As Christians, we come to know God not by looking at symbols or by theological arguments; as Christians, we come to know God through relationships with people who are made in God’s image, through personal and communal prayer, and by serving one another. The God we meet is not an impersonal God, a vague shadow of a higher being; the God we meet is community of persons, Father, Son, and Spirit; a God of love and relationships. And He truly is a God who transcends time, a God of eternity.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Don't Make Me Come Down There!"

Homily for Pentecost, Year A
Several years ago, there was a billboard campaign called God Speaks – perhaps you remember it. All across the county, solid black billboards along the highways had large white words on them, quotes supposedly signed by God, with no other pictures, or logos, or even fine print saying who had put up the billboards. They said things like, “Need Directions?” and “What part of Thou Shalt Not Didn’t You Understand?” and “Loved the wedding, invite me to the marriage.” These billboards certainly made you think, and were a creative way to bring faith right into the middle of our world. One of the billboards read: “Don’t make me come down there! - God” Think about that one … apparently, the thought is that we’re on the verge of being such bad people, of messing things up or getting out of line, that pretty soon, if we’re not careful, God is going to have to step out of heaven and come down to earth, and if that happens, you’d better watch out! It sounds like a parent shouting downstairs to their kids who are making a little too much noise. And if God did indeed come down here … well, we wouldn’t want to think of what he would do.

But wait a minute, there’s something wrong with this picture. God did come down here to earth – he sent his only Son to be born as a man, to live among us, to suffer like us, and to die like us. God came down to earth not to punish us, but because he loves us, because he wants to offer us the gift of forgiveness and show us how to get to heaven. “Don’t make me come down there!” the billboard threatens. But God already has, and his coming down here is the most glorious thing that has ever happened. I, for one, am glad that God loves us so much that he walked among us. But that's not the end of the story.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. The cycle of Christian history has come full circle for us in just the last few months. At Christmas, we celebrated the birth of God as man – God coming down from heaven. During Holy Week, we remembered Christ’s passion and death, and on Easter we celebrated his resurrection. And now, fifty days later, we remember what Jesus told his disciples – that even after he ascended into heaven, they would not be left alone – the Holy Spirit would come to them and remain with them always. From that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church continually – we have a Spirit of love and truth, a Spirit of peace and joy, a Spirit that fills us with the presence of God and gives us what we need to become more like Christ. The glory of Pentecost is that God did not just come down to earth once, live here for a few years, and then leave – he promised to stay with us always, to live always among us through his Spirit. God is here – in each person who has been baptized in his name, in each act of love that we show to one another – God is very much here on this earth. And even when we stray away from Him, the Spirit brings us back by offering grace and forgiveness and unconditional love. “Don’t make me come down there!” the billboards say. But on Pentecost, we rejoice that God has come down here, in His only Son, and through His Holy Spirit, and God will never leave us to walk the adventure of life alone.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Blank Page

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Note: The following homily was delivered the weekend of April 26 and 27. Because of Confirmations that weekend and being on vacation the following week, I am just now getting a chance to post this homily. I did not preach the weekend of May 3 and 4.

Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to read Scripture, fully intent on being able to find some significant meaning in what you read, but it all falls flat and you get nothing out of it. Take, for example, one of the lines from today’s gospel: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” Everything clear? You are in me and I am in you and you are in him and he is in me and I am in him and we are in each other … Or imagine this scenario, you are a priest who reflects on the Scriptures each week in preparation for preaching on Sunday morning, but during one particular week, no matter how many times you go through the readings, no matter how many commentaries and reflections you look at, no matter how much time you spend in prayer, when it comes time to write that week’s homily, absolutely nothing has grabbed you. Typically, there is a word or phrase in the gospel that sticks out – but this week, nothing. So you start looking at the world around you, to try to find the gospel at work in our world. But, unlike last week, there was no earthquake to work into the homily, and you can’t quite figure out how to connect skyrocketing gas prices with Jesus’ line: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is either going to be a really long week of searching for a homily topic, or else a really bad homily.

So then you do what all good preachers do: if nothing strikes you from the gospel of the day, you start looking at the other readings. And there are great themes in the first two readings we have today – we hear about the giving of the Holy Spirit in the first reading, and we hear a brilliant reflection on the relationship between hope and suffering in the second reading. Yes, that will do just fine – hope and suffering – this weekend would be a great opportunity for a theological exposition on the meaning of Christian hope. Pope Benedict has a relatively new document on hope; you could quote him, and then masterfully weave in some of the reflections of people like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Hilary of Poitiers, and then wow them with the depth of thought of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who said, Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis. But pretty soon you come to your senses and remember that a homily is not a theological tome, and it is never a good thing if the preacher falls asleep before the people. And so you make a note to write a bulletin letter on the relationship between hope and suffering, and you turn back to a now empty piece of paper that is supposed to be a homily.

But maybe that’s it – right there before your eyes: a blank sheet of paper. Because the message of today’s gospel is not about writing down reflections on the words of Jesus, it’s about living the words of Jesus. The message of today’s gospel is to love God, to keep his commandments, and if you do your best to do that, then God will send the Holy Spirit to help you. It’s a living message, an active message – love God through your actions, not through your writing, preach the gospel at all times, as St. Francis of Assisi said, and only use words if necessary. The faith we profess is a living faith, and there is no number of written homiletical reflections that can surpass the glory of living for Christ. Sometimes a blank page faith is better than an encyclopedia faith.