No More War, War Never Again! – Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI

This weekend is Catechetical Sunday, the day we recognize and commission those who assist parents in the important task of handing on the faith.

While the primary duty of handing on the faith belongs to parents, it’s such a monumental task that it’s good to have some assistance. That’s why Catholic schools and religious education programs exist. It takes an entire community working together in Christ to build the Kingdom of God.

And in the work of catechesis, there are three teaching strategies that are particularly helpful: asking good questions, repetition, and practice.

Good questions are the foundation of a solid education. The best lessons begin with questions. There are science questions like “Why is the sky blue?” and “What makes the tides?” There are math questions like “How can we determine the area of a circle?” and history questions like “Who invented the alphabet?”

The Letter of James today asks a question, a powerful question. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?”

After two thousand years of Christianity, the question is still relevant. War is still here. It exists not only between nations, but between communities, social groups, and neighbors.

Why do we wage war? Why can we not live in peace?

It’s a question that begs to be asked over and over, by each generation, until war no longer exists.

We teachers here at All Saints recently studied the book Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. One of the things we learned about brain research and learning is summarized in his rule “Repeat to remember.”

Dr. Medina writes that “The capacity of the memory is initially less than 30 seconds. If we don’t repeat the information it disappears.”

Never is that more clear than with the issue of war and peace. How soon we forget the terror of war. How easily it seems so distant to us.

50 years ago, on October 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI came to the United States and spoke to the United Nations. He told the nations of the world,

“No more war, war never again! It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all [humanity]…Peace, as you know, is not built solely by means of politics and the balance of forces and of interests. It is constructed with the mind, with ideas, with works of peace…”

Ideas and works.

And then thirty-six years ago, on October 2, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II spoke to that same body, the United Nations. He said,

“Paul VI was a tireless servant of the cause of peace. I wish to follow him with all my strength and continue his service. The Catholic Church in every place on earth proclaims a message of peace, prays for peace, educates for peace…”

Twenty years ago, on October 4, 1995, Pope St. John Paul II returned once more to the United Nations to tell them again,

“When millions of people are suffering from a poverty which means hunger, malnutrition, sickness, illiteracy, and degradation, we must…remind ourselves that no one has a right to exploit another for his own advantage…”

And it was only just seven years ago, in April of 2008, that Pope Benedict came and spoke to the United Nations.

“…questions of security,” he said, “…protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Pope Francis arrives in our country in just a few days. He touches down in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday he will be welcomed by President Obama, will pray with all the bishops of the United States at noon, and that evening he will canonize a new saint.

On Thursday he will address congress and on Friday he will address the United Nations. What will he say to those political bodies? What we will he say to us?

If history is any indication, we probably already know.

He will talk about
distribution of material goods;
protection of the environment;

Will anyone listen this time?

But our faith is about more than listening and remembering. It is also about doing. Several weeks ago, when we first started reading from the Letter of James here at Mass, we heard “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”

To do anything well takes practice. Practicing skills is the third essential teaching strategy.

One effective way to teach skills is the “I do, we do, you do” strategy.

It’s the way most of us learned math.
The teacher stood at the chalkboard and said
“Watch while I do long division.”
And then he or she turned to the class and said,
“Now we will do some problems together.”
And finally, the teacher said, “Now you do these problems.”
“I do, we do, you do.”

It’s is a good way to teach skills.

Peacemaking is a skill. It’s an active, deliberate set of actions.
It takes practice.
The Church has been teaching it for a long time.

In our day, it is Pope Francis who is standing at the chalkboard now.
Like the teacher who demonstrates the math problem,
he says, “Watch, while I do peacemaking,”
and he invites the leaders of Israel and Palestine to the Vatican to meet.
He takes in two families of war refugees from Syria.

Now he comes to the United Nations, and like the popes that have come before, I imagine he will say something along these lines:
“Let us do peace together.
Let us show the world that we can resolve differences without war.”
And after that it will be up to us to do peace on our own,
in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and families.

“I do peace, we do peace, you do peace.”

Asking good questions,
repeating to remember,
practicing with “I do, we do, you do.”
These are hallmarks of good teaching.

And Jesus was the greatest teacher of them all.

He knew how to ask powerful questions:
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
“Who do people say that I am?”
“Simon, do you love me more than these?”

He also understood the importance of repetition.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love your enemies.”
“Remain in my love.”

And he practiced “I do, we do, you do.”
He accepted the cross himself;
he taught his disciples to take up their crosses and preach the good news;
he sends his Holy Spirit to each of us individually at Baptism and Confirmation and he feeds us here at this Eucharist so that we can take up our crosses and preach the good news, so that we can be peacemakers.

But as any teacher will tell you, the best teaching strategies only go so far. All the questions, all the repetition, all the demonstration of skills mean nothing if the students do not engage, if they refuse to learn.

Today’s liturgy is an invitation to be a lifelong learner.
It is a challenge to go from here today
and spend some time in silence contemplating the question,
“Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among [us] come from?”
It is a call to find those places of conflict in our own lives
and practice the skills of peacemaking,
and to continually repeat the words of Pope Paul VI
in order to remember them for longer than thirty seconds,

“No more war, war never again!”

Liminal Spaces – Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Moving In

This past week on Facebook
a former student posted a picture of herself with her husband.
They’ve been married almost two years,
and they were standing with their arms around each other
next to the “Sold” sign in front of their very first house.
She’s about five months pregnant
as they get ready to welcome their first child this coming December.

I imagine there are lots of families
moving into new homes this summer,
getting used to new cities, new neighborhoods,
children about to start the year in a new school.
Some of you are taking your children to college,
maybe for the first time living away from home.

Summer is a season of movement.
Each of those moves is an ending and a new beginning,
with overlap between them.

Anthropologist Victor Turner calls these moments “liminal spaces.”
Liminal spaces are the in-between places of our lives,
neither here nor there,
“betwixt and between”
as someone recently described them to me.

We all experience liminal spaces throughout life,
times when we are in transition, on the threshold:

That first week in the new house,
surrounded by boxes and empty cupboards,
wondering who the neighbors are,
or how to get to the grocery store.
You’re not in the old house any more,
but not yet fully in the new house either.

Or beginning life as newlyweds,
not single anymore,
and yet not quite a couple.

There are those times we wait for the results of medical tests,
unsure of how our lives might suddenly be turned upside down.

Summer is a liminal space for students,
where they are no longer fourth graders, but not yet fifth graders,
no longer sophomores, but not yet upperclassmen,
no longer in high school, but not yet college students.

Some are transitioning into retirement.
Maybe some are in the middle of a breakup,
or in between jobs.
There are those who are grieving the loss of a pet,
a friend, or a loved one.
The smoke in the air reminds us of all those
who have lost homes and possessions in the forest fires,
and who are unsure what will happen next.
These are the liminal spaces of our lives.

This is where the Israelites are in today’s first reading;
this is where the disciples are in the gospel.
We see both groups on the threshold, on the verge.

At the end of the book of Joshua,
the Israelites have entered the Promised Land.
This is a key moment in Salvation History.
God had sent Moses to lead them
from slavery in Egypt into the desert
where they have wandered for decades.
But Moses has died and Joshua has led the Israelites in battle
against the Amorites, the Moabites, Canaanites,
until all opposition has ceased.
Now a long period of uncertain wanderings through the desert
is ending;
a new era is beginning.
God’s chosen people are about to settle in a land
filled with people who have worshipped other gods.
It is a new place, a strange place in many ways.
The Israelites are no longer a wandering people,
but not yet a settled community.

They are in a liminal space.

And in the gospel we have read for the past six weeks
the disciples have heard Jesus speak of himself
as the bread of life;
that his flesh is true food
and his blood is true drink.

This new teaching challenges the beliefs of the disciples.
Some can’t tolerate it.
They turn back to where they once were.
They return to their former way of life.

But not the Twelve.
The Twelve are willing to accept the uncertainty of liminal space.
They are on the threshold of a new and radical teaching.
They’re not quite sure what it means.
You get the feeling that they would leave Jesus too
if they had a better option.
But Jesus has the words of everlasting life.
There is no place else to go.
They will not return to their former way of life.
They cannot follow Jesus and at the same time stay where they are.
They must move.

Because of their encounter with Jesus
they are no longer who they were before,
but they are not yet the people they will soon be.

They are in a liminal space,
not physically but spiritually.

Liminal space is disorienting, uncomfortable, frightening.
But liminal space is where growth happens,
where new perspectives appear.
It’s in these threshold moments that communities are formed.

Joshua summons all the people together to remind them
not to look behind at the gods of the past, but to look ahead.
He challenges them:
“Are you going to worship the gods of your ancestors?”
“Are you going to return to your former way of life?”
“Or are you going to serve the Lord?”

On the threshold of settling into the Promised Land,
Joshua leads the people in a renewal of the covenant.
“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And the people essentially answer, “Amen.”
“We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

With that answer, the community makes a conscious choice
to remain God’s people.

Jesus challenges his disciples in the same way.
“Does this shock you?” he asks.
“Do you also want to leave?”
“The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
And through Peter, the Twelve answer, “Amen.”
“We have come to believe and are convinced
that you are the Holy One of God.”

With their answer, the apostles make a conscious choice
to stay with Jesus, to be a community of disciples.

And now the challenge is before us.
Joshua’s question is for us, too:
Are we going to worship other gods?
Or are we going to serve the Lord?
Jesus asks us, as he asks the first disciples,
Do you also want to leave?

To serve the Lord, to stay with Jesus,
means entering into liminal space.
It means leaving our former way of life behind.

Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Mark are
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
This is what conversion is,
a turning away from the old, false self
to the new, true self.

Jesus is constantly inviting us to follow him,
but we can’t follow him and stay where we are.

Anthropologist Victor Turner called Christians “liminal figures”
because we understand
that we are temporary residents of this world.
We are “betwixt and between,”
in liminal space for our entire lives.

Our conversion is not a single moment in time,
but a lifetime of turning that began with our baptism.

To be a Christian means to live always on the threshold
of this life and the next.

What are the uncomfortable places that we are each being led to?

Maybe we’re feeling called to serve others,
but we fear losing our comfortable existence.
We might be trying to let go of an addiction
or sinful pattern of behavior,
but we haven’t yet found anything healthy to replace it.
Maybe God is calling us to a religious or priestly vocation,
or to commit ourselves in marriage,
and we’re afraid of how that would radically change our lives.

Whatever liminal spaces we may find ourselves in,
today’s scripture readings reassure us.

“The Lord protected us along our entire journey…” the Israelites say.
“Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

“Jesus, you have the words of eternal life,” says Peter.
God protects us and gives us the words of eternal life.

What makes the liminal spaces bearable,
whether they’re physical or spiritual,
is first, the sure knowledge that God walks with us,
and second, the reality that others are in the same situation.

No matter how disoriented, uncomfortable, or afraid we may be,
we always have a home in the Body of Christ.
The Christian community is to be the place where anyone can come
and be held in the arms of Jesus.
That gives us strength and hope,
and the courage to accept the liminal spaces in our lives.

This Eucharistic celebration,
like the assembly of the tribes at Shechem,
is a chance to renew our baptism,
and to embrace our ongoing conversion.
After coming here to this liturgy
are we going to “return to our former way of life,”
or continue to serve the Lord?

Back to the Meadow – Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mountain Meadow

Today’s readings form a beautiful progression:
In the first reading God makes a promise.
The responsorial psalm responds to that promise.
The Gospel shows the fulfillment of the promise.
And all three center on the figure of the shepherd.

First, God promises.
During the time of the prophet Jeremiah,
the people of God were scattered.
They were beaten down.
The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem,
and had ultimately destroyed the Temple.
The chosen people are in exile.
The kings of Israel, who were supposed to shepherd the people,
have given in to power, cowardice, and greed.

“Woe to the shepherds,” says Jeremiah.
“You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them…”

But God cares, says Jeremiah.
“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow.”

Isn’t that a perfect image for summertime?
We might imagine a mountain meadow,
green grass, a cool breeze, the blue sky.
The meadow is empty,
but soon people begin to trickle in one by one or two by two,
as the shepherd brings them back.
They meet, shake hands or hug. It’s like a big family reunion.
Slowly the meadow fills with people.

This is God’s promise:
to gather everyone together:
“None shall be missing,” he says.

So this is the promise:
a shepherd who gathers.

And after the promise comes the responsorial psalm,
our response to what we have heard.
We just sang together,
“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

This is the most beloved psalm in scripture, and for good reason.
The psalmist has it right. The psalmist knows God, trusts God.
“God gives me repose.” “God refreshes my soul.”
“God guides me.” “I fear no evil.”
This is a psalm of trust.

Our response to God’s word from Jeremiah is to trust in the promise.
God will send a shepherd to bring us to the meadow,
to gather us together and give us rest,
to guide us, to take away our fears.

What am I most stressed out about today?
Where do I need guidance?
What do I fear?
Where am I falling apart?

When we are scattered, the shepherd will gather.
God will bring us to verdant pastures.
Not only will the shepherd lead us to rest,
but he will also refresh our souls.

And God will do something more.
The second part of the psalm describes a God who nourishes.
“You spread the table before me in sight of my foes.”
The shepherd will not only guide and gather, but also feed his people.

In that meadow that we’ve been imagining
there will be large banquet tables.
The people will feast as they have never feasted before.
The cups will overflow.

God will do this. He has promised.
Our response is to believe it, to accept it, and to proclaim it out loud.
“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

How can we believe in this? How can we trust this?
How can we know?
Because it has already happened.
The promise has been fulfilled
and is being fulfilled here today.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.
The shepherd God promised has already come.
Jesus sees the vast crowd in today’s gospel
and his heart moves with pity.
He doesn’t send them away.
Jesus doesn’t scatter.
He gathers.
He preaches peace to those who were far off
and peace to those who are near.
Jesus goes among prostitutes and tax collectors.
He eats with sinners.
Jesus seeks out the lost so that “none shall be missing.”
He leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one.

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow.”

The meadow is here, in this community of believers.
Here, we find repose.
He leads us here, beside the restful waters of baptism.
He refreshes our souls
in the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing.
We walk in dark valleys,
but here in this community
he is at our side, so we fear no evil.

And here at this altar
he spreads the table of the Eucharist.
Jesus our shepherd does more than prepare the banquet.
He offers his body and blood as life-giving food.
He gathers us around this table so that we can be nourished.

Jesus is the shepherd we have been promised.

But if the promise has been fulfilled,
then why do we still want?
Why are we still so restless?
Why don’t we feel more refreshed?
Why do we still fear evil?

That is a question each of us must ask ourselves individually.
That is a question to meditate on, to pray about.

There are six verses in Psalm 23.
One for each day of the week, Monday through Saturday.

On Monday we could take verse one,
“The Lord is my shepherd,
there is nothing I shall want,”
and think about that for a while.
Do I want God to be my shepherd?
Or would I rather be the master of my fate,
the captain of my soul?
It feels kind of insulting to be thought of as a sheep.
Why do I feel that way?
And there are lots of things that I want.
Why do I want so many things?
We could spend five minutes or so thinking about that little verse.

Then we could talk to Jesus about it, asking him questions,
for about a minute.
Jesus, if I let you shepherd me, what would happen?
Would I lose my freedom? Would I be happier?
Jesus, I want to be guided by you, but I get so distracted.
Can you help me focus more on you?
I have lots of wants: I want a new job, I want friends,
I want help with this particular problem.
We can just speak to Jesus as to a friend,
no longer than a minute.

And then, we can simply rest in His presence.
We can take about five minutes and let Jesus respond to us,
listening in the silence for anything He might have to offer.

On Tuesday, verse two:
“In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me.”

Then on Wednesday:
“He refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths.”

It takes less than fifteen minutes to do this each day,
in the morning or in the evening,
or maybe on our lunch break.
We can open up the Bible,
or pull up Psalm 23
on our computers, smart phones, or tablets.

And then read the verse slowly,
think about it for five minutes,
speak to Jesus for one minute,
listen for five minutes.
One verse for each day of the week.

And by the end of the week
we may be surprised by what we encounter.

If we start on Monday and end on Saturday,
we will reach the end of Psalm 23,
and hear God’s promise to us one more time,
a promise that has already been fulfilled in Jesus,
and one to which we hope to respond
with full confidence and trust just
so we can say, just as the psalmist did:

“Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.”