The Imperfect Rehearsal Dinner – Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wedding Cake

Today’s readings offer us a contrast
between two people visited by the Lord.
The Lord comes to their homes, and we see two different reactions;
I’m not speaking here of Martha and Mary,
but of Martha and Abraham.

Now, there are definitely differences
between the way Martha responds to her encounter with Jesus,
and the way Mary responds.
But if we focus only on Martha and Mary,
we may get the mistaken idea that Mary’s contemplation
is superior to Martha’s service.

But by comparing and contrasting Martha and Abraham,
we can see the value of active service for God,
but also how that service
can take two very different paths.

The first reading and the gospel parallel each other:
In the first reading, the three men, representing the the Lord,
visit Abraham and Sarah at their tent, their home.
In the gospel Jesus visits Martha and Mary at their home.
And both Abraham and Martha work hard
to be hospitable to their guests.

But there’s a big difference
in the way they each of them provide that hospitality.

Abraham is eager to serve his guests.
In the heat of the day,
he runs out from his tent to greet the strangers.
He says, “Do me a favor and stay here and let me serve you.”
Abraham is eager to demonstrate his hospitality.
It’s a favor to him to serve them.
It’s a favor to him to be able to bring them water,
to bathe their feet.
It’s a favor to him to bring them food.

He’s so eager he can’t contain himself.
He runs everywhere.
He runs to greet them,
he runs to Sarah
and says, “Quick! Make some rolls!”
He runs out to the field and finds a tender, choice steer
and gives it to a servant who prepares it quickly.
Everything in the story happens quickly.
And finally Abraham himself waits on the strangers.
For Abraham, this encounter with the Lord
is a gift, a favor,
an opportunity to eagerly serve.

The encounter between Martha and the Lord
is very different.
In the gospel we see Martha
burdened with much serving.
For Martha, being hospitable to Jesus is not a favor,
but a source of anxiety.

She feels pressure
to make sure things are just so.
She needs help to do things the way she wants them done,
but instead of directly asking Mary to get up and help,
the way Abraham asked Sarah,
she takes a passive-aggressive approach.
She keeps working and working,
hoping that Jesus will notice and say something.
You can almost see her shooting dirty looks to Mary
behind Jesus’ back.

What Martha is doing is passing judgment on Mary.
She judges that Mary ought to be helping her,
and she’s upset when Jesus doesn’t notice.
So she asks, “Lord, don’t you care?”

But if she wanted a sympathetic ear,
she’s not getting it from Jesus.
It’s not the fact that Martha is serving instead of sitting
that Jesus is concerned about;
it’s that Martha’s anxious and worried about many things.

What is she worried about?
The gospel doesn’t say,
but we can imagine:
Is the food prepared properly?
Does everyone have enough to eat?
Does it taste ok?
Is the table clean enough?

In other words,
she wants things to be perfect for Jesus.
Part of it may be pride,
part of if may be worry
about what Jesus will think of her
if the dinner doesn’t come off well.

Anyone who’s ever put on an important dinner
can relate to Martha’s anxieties.
Two weeks ago our oldest son got married,
and as the parents of the groom
Brenda and I were responsible for the rehearsal dinner.
This was the first wedding in our family,
and we wanted the dinner to go perfectly.
So, of course, we worked hard on it,
and we worried.
Will there be something on the menu for everyone?
Will the food turn out ok?
Should we have a toast?
When do we play the slide show?
Will the two families get along and get to know each other?

We could easily relate to Martha’s anxieties.

But we could also relate to Abraham.
We were eager and excited.
Putting on the rehearsal dinner didn’t feel like a burden,
but a favor,
a privilege to do something for people we love and care about.

But we were still worried and anxious.
We wanted the dinner to be perfect
for our son Ryan and his soon-to-be wife Teresa.

It wasn’t perfect.
And yet
it was perfect.

It wasn’t perfect in the sense that one of the entrees came out cold
for everyone who ordered it
and had to be sent back.
The amplifier for the slide show kept crackling, so the sound was bad,
and the timing of the music with the pictures
didn’t work the way it was supposed to.

But at the same time,
the rehearsal dinner was perfect.

Because there was need of only thing:
Ryan and Teresa, gathered together with their friends and family.
It was the encounter that mattered, the gathering together in love.

This is what Jesus is trying to tell Martha.
There is need of only one thing: encounter with Jesus.
Could Mary have helped Martha without asking?
Would that have made the dinner perfect?
Probably not.

But the dinner was perfect anyway
because of the presence of Jesus, the one thing needed.

As we think about our own encounters with Jesus,
Abraham and Martha help us look at how we respond
to Jesus’ presence in our lives.

Both Abraham and Martha worked hard for their guests.
For Martha it was a burden.
For Abraham it was a pleasure.

Do we, like Martha, feel Jesus’ presence as a burden?
Is our encounter with Jesus like a weight that we have to carry,
a weight that seems heavier to us
than to the people around us,
a jealous kind of burden?
Are we worried that we won’t be able to please God?
Do we judge others and complain to God
about those who don’t seem to be serving God
or living out the faith as much as we do?
Do we cry out,
“Lord, don’t you care?”

Or do we respond with eagerness as Abraham did,
recognizing that serving God is a privilege,
a joyful encounter with the One who loves us?

I suspect that for most of us
there are times when we respond like Abraham,
eager and happy to serve;
and there are times when we respond like Martha,
angry and judgmental;
there are even times when we respond in both ways at the same time.

Luke doesn’t say what happened after Jesus spoke to Martha.
But based on what we hear of Martha in John’s gospel,
it’s likely that she listened to what Jesus said and grew from it,
taking it to heart.
Maybe she put the dishes down, sat next to Mary,
and really engaged with Jesus.
Or maybe she kept working,
but with a lighter heart,
letting her anxieties go,
realizing that Jesus would always love her,
regardless of how hard she worked,
or how well things turned out.

The more important question is:
How are we being called to grow as we leave here today?
Some of us may feel the need to sit with Mary at the foot of Jesus
and spend more time listening to him.
Others may sense that they need to keep serving, like Martha,
but with a renewed eagerness and joy.
And still others may feel the call to jump up like Abraham,
and run out to meet Jesus, ready to serve him and his people.

Whatever we are called to do as we leave,
we can be certain that Jesus visits us in our homes,
in our workplaces, on our vacations, wherever we are;
and that despite all our worries and anxieties,
he is the one thing needed.

Castles in the Air: A Wedding Homily for My Son and His Bride

Ryan and Teresa Senger

Ryan and Teresa Senger

Yesterday I had the great honor to officiate the wedding of my son, Ryan, and his wife Teresa. Here is the homily from that ceremony:

Brenda and I have had the best time
watching Ryan and Teresa get ready for this day,
and we’ve enjoyed getting ready for it ourselves.

One of the things I had to do for the wedding
was pick up the dry cleaning a few days ago
from a place out in the valley, off Pines near Broadway.
After I picked it up,
instead of trying to make a left on Pines,
I went down a side street to get back on Broadway,
and as I turned the corner,
there, in the middle of a residential neighborhood,
was a castle.

I did not know that there was a castle in the Spokane Valley.

But it’s there, on Vercler Road.
You can tell by looking at it that it’s homemade,
that it’s been built slowly, over time,
with its leaning towers, and uneven brickwork.
Some of the towers look unfinished,
as if the builder is still working on it.
And as I drove by, I thought,
thank you, God, for the romantics of the world,
who give us castles
in the middle of the city.
To me, that castle is a sign of creativity, of idealism,
of something bigger.
Some might call it foolish, the work of a dreamer,
but I call it romantic.

I know there are some romantics here today,
and two of them are sitting right over there.
I don’t know if it surprises you to know that they’re romantics,
and maybe it surprises them.
But here’s how I know they’re romantics:
If any of you have seen the pictures that Teresa posts on Facebook,
you might have noticed
that whenever she posts a picture of herself and Ryan,
she adds it to a photo album that she calls
“My Knight in Shining Kevlar.”

Isn’t that romantic?

For Teresa, Ryan is the knight who rescued her
from a life of crime,
that night when they first met
and he found her parked illegally.
He is her knight in shining kevlar.

And if you’ve seen the pictures of the day they got engaged,
Ryan on one knee in the middle of a field of blueberries,
the knight keeling before his lady,
you know that there’s a romantic side to Ryan.

So there’s a bit of the romantic in each one of them.
This became even more clear to me
when I asked both of them
why they had chosen these particular Scripture readings for today.
They both pointed to the last line of the first reading,
where Tobiah and Sarah are praying on their wedding night,
and they end that prayer by asking God,
“allow us to live together to a happy old age.”

That line is important to Ryan and Teresa.
Ryan and Teresa want their story to end with
“and they lived happily ever after.”

It’s a romantic notion,
a notion that some might see as idealistic, unreachable,
like building castles in the air — or in the middle of Spokane.

But it was the American writer Henry David Thoreau who said,
“If you build your castles in the air…
that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them.”

Today, Ryan and Teresa begin building the foundation
under their castle in the air.

And like that castle in the Spokane Valley,
their wedding this day is something visible, something public.

Just as that castle in the middle of the city
is a sign of something bigger,
every marriage is to be a sign of something bigger.

The love that married couples have for each other
is to be a sacred sign of the way God loves us.

Whenever we see married couples holding hands in the park,
or out on a date,
worried about whether the kids are tying up the babysitter,
we get a tiny glimpse of God’s love for us.
When one spouse is sick and the other makes chicken noodle soup,
or when one has had a bad day and comes home to a sympathetic ear,
we get an echo of the great love God offers us
each and every moment.

Marriage is a sacred sign.
If we want to know how God loves us,
we are to look at couples like you, Ryan and Teresa,
and see your love.

You are called to be a castle in the middle of the city,
an ever-growing monument to God’s love for all to see.

That’s not an easy task.
In fact, it’s quite a challenge.

Like that castle over on Vercler Road,
every marriage needs constant building,
and continual tending.
Those of us who have been married for many years
can tell you all about love’s ups and downs.

But we can also tell you that you are not alone
in building your marriage.
Today as you commit yourselves to each other,
Jesus Christ also promises himself to you.
He promises to walk your journey with you.
He promises to be with you in good times and in bad,
in sickness and in health,
in the hope that you will live together to a happy old age.

There is another castle, now, in the Spokane Valley,
just off Dishman-Mica Road.
This is your castle,
the castle that the two of you will continually build, remodel, and expand on,
a castle to share with the world.

It’s not the house on the lot there,
or the shop, or the home theater, or the kitchen.

It is the interior castle of your hearts,
the place where a knight in shining kevlar and his lady
work together with Christ to live a life happily ever after.

In Your Own Words – Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C


One of the most dreaded phrases
in classrooms everywhere is
“in your own words.”

“Explain the causes of the Civil War in your own words.”
“Describe the process of photosynthesis in your own words.”

Teachers love the phrase because it requires students
to do deep thinking;
and students dread the phrase,
because it requires them to do deep thinking.

It may seem cruel of me to be talking about school
so soon after summer vacation has begun,
but I only bring it up because of what happens in today’s gospel.

Jesus is ending one stage of his ministry,
and he’s giving his disciples a kind of oral mid-term.
This is a turning point in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus is about to begin his long journey
toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Before that happens,
he wants his disciples to be clear about who he is.

And so first Jesus prays in solitude.
In Luke’s gospel, this is always the signal
that something important is about to take place.
This is a key event,
not only for Jesus’ disciples in this gospel,
but also for us, Jesus’ disciples here and now.

And so for this mid-term test,
Jesus begins with an easy question:
“Who do the crowds say that I am?”

That’s just a matter of simple recall.
You can almost see the disciples raising their hands.
“John the Baptist, some say;
others say Elijah;
still others, one of the prophets.”

Maybe the disciples begin to feel a little proud of themselves:
“See, we’ve been paying attention.”

But then Jesus asks the tough question:
“But you, who do you say that I am?”

What he means is,
“You who walk with me and live with me,
you who know me,
Who do you say that I am? In your own words.”

Jesus asks the same question of each one of us.

We might reply
the Son of God,
the New Adam,
the Lamb of God,
my Lord and Savior.

Or maybe we would would borrow some of the great answers
that have come down through the ages
from saints, poets, theologians, and authors*:
In the Litany of the Sacred Heart
Jesus is the House of God and Gate of Heaven.
Fr. Eugene Boylan calls him This Tremendous Lover.
For poet Francis Thompson he is The Hound of Heaven.
To C.S. Lewis he is Aslan, the Lion of Narnia.
Bach called him The Joy of Man’s Desiring.
For Pope John Paul II he is a mirror in which we can see who we are.

Those are all excellent answers,
but they’re not in our own words.
That would be cheating.
Jesus wants the answer in our own words,
not repeated from memory or found in a book.

Peter didn’t read his answer in a catechism;
his answer came through his personal encounter with Jesus.
He saw Jesus work and heard him speak,
and so he was able to say,
“You are the Christ of God.”

Jesus wants our own answer
to be based on our personal relationship with him.

Our answer doesn’t have to be poetic.
It doesn’t even have to be completely right.
Peter’s answer was incomplete—
he correctly called Jesus the Christ,
but he had little idea that it meant Jesus would suffer
and then die on a cross.

We don’t need to worry about flowery language
or getting things just right.
We only need to be honest.

But it can be hard to come up with our own answer
especially since we’ve heard all the other answers so often.
When we start to think about who Jesus is,
the first thing that often comes to mind is what we hear at Mass,
what we’ve been taught by parents and catechists,
or what we’ve read in books.

The challenge of today’s liturgy, then,
is to get past those other answers,
and tell him in our own words who he is for us personally.

There are a couple of practices that can help us do this.

The first is a writing exercise,
and it’s a technique for helping students
who get stuck writing things from the surface,
unable to get at their own deeper thoughts.

The same thing can happen when we think about who Jesus is.
We can remain comfortably on the surface,
simply repeating the same phrases and titles we’ve heard before
without really challenging ourselves to go deeper
and really understand how Jesus wants to transform our lives.

The technique to get below the surface
is a little free writing exercise
that only takes ten minutes.

Get a piece of paper and a pen,
and set a timer for ten minutes.
Start the timer and begin writing an answer to Jesus’ question:
“Who do you say that I am?”
The key is to write for the entire ten minutes without stopping,
without picking the pen up from the paper,
not thinking about spelling or grammar,
not analyzing what you’re writing,
just letting your mind run where it will
while you write what goes through it.

At first, you’ll probably write down familiar words and phrases,
but after a while you’ll start to run out of ideas.
That’s when the deeper answers will start to come out.
It’s important not to stop when you run out of ideas,
but to keep the pen going.
If your mind goes blank, just keep writing the last word you wrote
until you get more words.

After the ten minutes is up,
you’ll have something authentic to think about,
something in your own words
to pray about
and to talk to Jesus about.

The other practice is for when we have a hard time
answering the question of who Jesus is
because we have lost touch with him.

We all lose touch with Jesus from time to time
as the busyness of the world creeps in
or as we get caught up in other pursuits.

One of the most honest answers we can give
to Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?”
is “I don’t know.”

When we find ourselves in that situation
then we know it’s time to reconnect with Jesus.
It’s time to ask the Holy Spirit to help us encounter Jesus.
And here’s one way to do that:

This only takes about ten minutes, too, by the way.
Bring your Bible to a quiet spot where you can be alone.
Open your Bible,
and choose any single event from the Gospels—
Jesus walking on water, healing the blind man,
telling the parable of the Good Samaritan,
teaching his disciples to pray—it doesn’t matter which.
Choose just one,
and then briefly ask God for the grace
to encounter Jesus,
and read the Gospel story.

As you read, try to enter into the story imaginatively,
just daydream about it for five minutes or so.
In your imagination, observe what’s happening;
look, listen, walk around and pay attention to Jesus.
What is he doing, what is he saying?
When you’re done thank God for this time with his Son.

After you do this over the course of several days,
revisit Jesus’ question,
“Who do you say that I am?”

Chances are, you’ll have an answer in your own words.

This is what Jesus wants.
He wants us to know him,
to really know him,
and not just words about him;
to be in a personal relationship with him
and to speak to him
in our own words.


*Thanks to Fr. James Gilhooley for these references to Jesus.

An Icon of the Holy Trinity – Homily for Trinity Sunday Year C

Andrei Rublev- The Trinity

Andrei Rublev – The Trinity

Not long ago we celebrated the Ascension,
and this was the first year we could celebrate that feast
with the beautiful icon of the Ascension greeting us
as we walked into the Church.

On this Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
I am reminded of another icon,
perhaps the most famous icon of them all,
the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev.
Rublev painted, or wrote, this icon in 1425
for the church of St. Sergius near Moscow, Russia,
and it’s regarded as one of the highest achievements of Russian art.
But more than that, it speaks to the heart about the Holy Trinity.

Icons are windows to the divine
that speak to the heart,
rather than to the head.

Lately I’ve been reading the book Contemplating the Trinity,
by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.
Fr. Cantalamessa has been the preacher to the papal household
for more than thirty-five years.
It has been his job to preach Advent and Lenten meditations
to the last three popes.

His book Contemplating the Trinity is a collection
of some of these meditations,
and he begins by speaking about Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.
He writes,
“Lengthy contemplation of this icon can yield more insight into the Trinity
than reading whole treatises on it.”*

If I had a copy of the icon to give to each one of you
I would simply hand it out
and invite you to contemplate it for the next few minutes,
rather than listen to me.
Alas, all I have is this rather small reproduction to hold up as I speak.

But I will share with you what I’ve learned so far about this icon
and what it has to say to us about the Holy Trinity,
and maybe you can take the time to look it up online this week
and contemplate it.

First of all, though it’s called the Holy Trinity,
what it actually depicts is a scene from the book of Genesis
in which three angels appear to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.

However, many early Christians saw these three angels
as a prefiguring of the Trinity
and that is how Rublev chooses to portray them in this icon.

The icon beautifully expresses the dogma of the Trinity,
that God is one in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The figures in the icon resemble each other very closely,
and yet they are distinct.
The icon is composed as a circle,
emphasizing the unity of the three persons.
“All three are wearing blue garments
as a sign of the divine nature they have in common.”
But they each also have another garment on of a different color.
The Father, represented by the angel on the left,
wears a garment of almost pure light.
The Son in the center wears a dark garment
“as a sign of the humanity with which he has clothed himself.”
The Holy Spirit on the right wears green,
since he is “the one who gives life.”

But Fr. Cantalamessa points out one thing
that is especially striking in contemplating the icon, and that is
“the profound peace and unity that emanate from” it.
He says, “A silent cry comes forth from the icon:
‘Be one as we are one.’”

“Be one as we are one.”

That is the message of this Solemnity of the Holy Trinity.
It is a reminder that the Father, the Son and Spirit are one.
And it is a reminder that we are to be one as they are one.

The unity of the Holy Trinity is what the world desperately needs today.
Because we are not one.
We are fractured by divisions that seem to be getting wider,
living in a world that seems to be getting more and more polarized.

And yet we all want unity.
We all have within us the desire to be united, to be one.
We don’t want political gridlock or intolerance.

Today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity calls us to recommit ourselves
to ending division and to build unity in our diversity.

And that begins with ourselves as individuals.
It means asking myself, “Where am I divided?”
What are the struggles within myself, what are the false faces I wear,
the different parts I play?
How do I balance work and home, leisure and responsibilities?
To grow in the spiritual life is to be made whole,
to have unity of purpose and will
where our values and actions align.

The family is also called to be one as the Holy Trinity is one.
The husband and wife unite to become one flesh,
and it takes years of sacrifice, patience and love
to discover what that means,
and how to remain two individual people, and yet at the same time be one.
Their children add to the diversity of the family,
bringing more life and more love,
but also intensifying the challenge to remain one.
Anyone with children knows the hard work of keeping a family together.

And as a faith community and as members of the human race,
we are called to be one as the Holy Trinity is one.
But it’s a challenge.
As Fr. Cantalamessa points out in his meditation,
we try to bring everyone around to our point of view,
while everyone else tries to bring us around to their point of view.

Or we finally give up and say everyone’s point of view is right,
which really means that no one’s point of view means anything.

True unity doesn’t come about by watering down our differences,
and it can’t be achieved through force.

It is the Holy Trinity that shows us the true path to unity.
In the Trinity, “…each Person ‘identifies’ with the other,
gives himself to the other,
and sustains the existence of the other.”

Can we follow the example of the Holy Trinity?
Can we identify with each other,
recognizing our commonalities,
suffering with each other, walking in each others’ shoes?
Can we give ourselves to each other in service,
bearing each other’s burdens?
Can we sustain the existence of each other,
strengthening social structures, policies and laws,
to ensure that everyone’s needs are met?

Rublev created his icon for the church of St. Sergius.
St. Sergius was an important figure in Russian history
whose motto was,
“through the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity
we can overcome the hateful divisions of this world.”

During his lifetime, Russia was invaded by a neighboring empire,
and St. Sergius was able to bring about unity among the warring chieftains
who then worked together and liberated Russia.

We are faced with invading forces of a different kind,
forces like poverty, prejudice, injustice, ignorance, and materialism;
but we are called to be united just the same in order to overcome them.

St. Sergius’ motto holds true for us, just as it held true for him:
“through the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity
we can overcome the hateful divisions of this world.”

Rublev’s icon is easy to find online.
Perhaps we could take some time each day this week to look at it closely,
contemplating each of the figures individually and as a whole,
asking the Holy Spirit for the grace to be one as the Trinity is one,
and to bring unity to our families, our community and the world.

And, as Fr. Cantalamessa writes,
we can do something even more blessed
than contemplate and imitate the Holy Trinity:
we can enter into it.
The Trinity meets us every time we come forward for the Eucharist.
By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ
we are united with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We enter into Rublev’s icon and become one as they are one.


*All quoted passages come from Fr. Cantalamessa’s book.