Sermons and Possibilities

Sermons rest between the Scripture readings of the day and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  They are delivered in a wide variety of ways and with varying degrees of intensity, purpose and vision.  And while they are the clergy’s to prepare,  the idea of a sermon truly speaking to a congregation is dependent on the congregation, on their experiences and dispositions, their own purpose and vision and understanding of faith.

Today, in a small New England church with simple lines and an early morning crowd, a sermon with purpose and meaning was delivered.  It was not a repetition of what the readings said: it was an invitation to see rather than look, to begin to focus fully on what is really there.  And so, for a bleary eyed congregation, the Transfiguration of Jesus somehow began to take on new meaning.  They were words delivered with clarity and coherence, words  shared with a quiet sense of confidence rather than intellectualization or arrogance.

Sermons like that are rare, but they are memorable.  Those moments of illumination are more than worth the effort of listening and being fully present.  There are other types of sermons that speak more than words.  There was the brevity favored by a an aged pastor emeritus in the Bronx.  Barely visible behind the podium, his rich voice demanded attention.  He was succinct, calling out the congregation by age groups and a hearty  “Listen up!” followed by a practical sentence or two about living life.  Similar effect, very different style.

There have been others:  the ones that draw laughter and  some that win tears.  Every once in a while, they are interrupted by applause or there is a specter of deep respectful silence, a sense of awe.  There have been many times when the words of a homily floated about the church, unattached to the personal experience or somehow vaguely disconnected from the liturgy itself.  And still, these are one of the moments where things can happen if allowed.

And it is part of the possibility of Catholicism to recognize that there is a chance to learn from one another, to connect with a story or to capture the facets of a moment in a new way.  And there, tucked between the readings and the Eucharist, is one of these openings.  In a complicated world with a tapestry of circumstances, a few words can be extremely efficient in eliciting more from the faithful.

The task of learning, learning to do good and to be better people, belongs to each of us everyday.  And listening, discovering a sermon like the one this morning, is part of    the chance to learn, one of the ways that can be accessed.  And the gift is a treasure.

The Time is Now

Lent.  A devastating flood.  A covenant.  Suffering and promise.  Desert, remote and raw.  The tenor of the liturgical readings of the day ripples with the reality of the horror of Parkland, the outrage and fury. The journey begins again, faltering steps in a real world both temporal and spiritual.  Catholicism holds the two intertwined, one informing the other and both leading to deliberate choice and decision.

There is a power in the Biblical story of Noah, the drama of the Ark and the flood.  The first reading for the day is from Genesis; perhaps  it is not at actually designed for children.  Maybe it is about even more than the glory of the rainbow or the miraculous survival.  Listening closely to the nuances of it is singularly powerful.  It highlights what Noah heard, then what he actually did.  There was no passivity in Noah, no casual response or nonchalant approach.  The story enshrines the impossibility of a hope re-shaped as a reality.  Essentially,  Noah’s story is about making things happen.

It is a story about collaboration, critical thinking, responsibility.  In all these ways, it is a story for our times.  It carries a message far greater than expected: it is about survival and possibility under perilous circumstance.  It is a story that can capture the hearts of children yet it clearly offers so much to adults grappling with the flood of contemporary crises.  It is about seeing more than what is visible, and choosing to make a stand, to build something different.

In the same way, there is the starkness of the Gospel, the simplicity of response, of Satan’s callous testing of Jesus in the desert.  Mark’s Gospel does not enshrine the particulars.  But there it is again:  Jesus taking action, dealing with the demons, and then coming forward.  “This the time of fulfillment…Repent and believe….”

These readings for first Sunday of Lent, in the shadow of Parkland, in the grief that both unites and divides the nation, have a powerful invitation.  This is our time, and at the heart of it all is a deep truth: actions matter.  Choices make a difference, have a consequence and an effect.  Attitudes matter;  decisions matter.  Each of us, and each of our choices, matter.  Each one affects others.

The spirituality of Catholicism, the tender reminders from Scripture readings, are invitations to live fully in the temporal world, to appreciate and  acknowledge, to dare to choose….to intertwine the secular and the spiritual.  The time is now.






Lent and Transformation

Transformation.  Lent, from the first ashes to the final bursts of light, is about transformation, becoming better than had been and more than was.  It is about discovering the singularity and the commonalities of personhood.  And the truth of that is found in the footsteps of Jesus.

His journey, wrapped in the narratives of the Evangelists,  can be read and interpreted on multiple levels.  But there is a compellingly human dimension to it as well.   Simply and powerfully, Jesus grapples with identity, with choices and actions that define his humanity and the world and institutions, the historical context, he was born into.  As an adult person, he learns about himself and others, struggling to define who He is and what He is about within that world.  He accepts help, takes risks, invites others, knows both friendship and rejection, grapples with multiple views and perspectives. He seeks, continually, and sometimes he chooses to be  apart.  Sometimes, he is trapped.  Always, he is conscious of others….and sometimes he can help.  The Gospel stories, seen as a process, are also a becoming.  Jesus is becoming who he really is.

Essentially, these weeks of Lent are an invitation to walk through that process, to become who we really are and to focus on  becoming better persons, to find the uniqueness of singularity and the substance of commonality with others.  Ours is a journey bound by 21st century conventions and jargon, edged by skepticism and hidden by the marvels of technology.  But it is no less a journey than Jesus’, and His is one to be learned from.

Lent, more than a burden of repentance or remorse, is about learning again who we are and what we are called to.  The very tradition of ashes speaks of the humility of that: none of us had the power to choose to be here, and yet here we are brought into existence by something other than self.  But within that, each one of us is learning at every stage of life.  Like Jesus, we choose.

Like Jesus, we seek the more, the better self.  Circumstances and context may vary wildly, but the search goes on for a place in this world, for friends and for meaning, for deeper understanding.  His journey was not linear and did not involve the acquisition of power.  Instead, it was about being who He was created to be.  And in the ignominy of the Cross, that was revealed and understood.  Still, he did not shrink from the suffering or vengefully strike at the betrayer.

Lent is the chance to take time to look at the journey, at the past and the present.  It is a time to consider the possibility of transformation, of growth.    It is about daring to define personal identity in the context of now, and finding the courage to face what is.  It is about choosing actions that make a difference in the lives of others.  Lent is about becoming who we really are; it is about making conscious choices to become a better person.  It is about remembering what Jesus’ journey pointed to: what is held in common outweighs what is not, and transformation, growth, is possible.



They stand in a haphazard line, silhouettes with facial features illuminated by the eerie glow of phones.  The rumble of a crowded subway station surrounds them but each one is still, focused, absorbed in the tiny handheld device.  The scene is repeated in school hallways and hospital waiting rooms, in restaurants and service stations, on sidewalks and in airports.  And in so many ways, that very glow somehow deadens the sounds and shapes of the moment.  In the midst of the chaos of life, the device provides an escape, a distraction, from the present.  That alternate reality creates a certain quiet, but it is not Quiet.

Quiet is stillness, the kind of stillness that transcends but does not ignore, the sound. Quiet is something that resides within and yet reaches out.  Quiet is more than silence: it is  a way of being present in the world, of being open to the moment, of finding a way to understand the wilds of the surrounding world.  Quiet is the companion of Kindness and the Friend of Mercy.  Quiet is about listening deeply and drinking long slow draughts  of another’s experience.  Quiet is both quality and action.

Quiet invites full presence to the moment, to the space of now.  Quiet is meeting of soul and moment, the full reveal of self invested fully in the present.  Quiet is what notices the stars in an inky sky and quiet is what perceives pain in a cloudy eyes.  Quiet is about openness and becoming, and it is a gift.kwardness

And yet there is an awkwardness in quiet, in the lack of words and sounds an devices.  There is a temptation to trust in the sounds and the chaos and the cacophony, to avoid the simplicity and the presence that Quiet means.  Quiet bears a cost, and it can be counted in courage, in daring to be different and in believing that the cost is worth it.

Quiet is deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition, well formed and shaped in the rigor of monastic living and the formulas of retreats and even in the liturgy.  Quiet is far more than the absence of sound.  Quiet is the spacious soul that has room for so much more….and Quiet reminds us to breathe deeply and become more.  Because we can.