8th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C (1995)

Tonight/today I’d like to talk for a couple of minutes
about one of my favorite architectural features of this church.
And I hope my choice isn’t too controversial,
although I suspect that many of you don’t care for it,
or haven’t given it much thought one way or the other.

It’s not the cross, or the tabernacle, or the baptismal font,
although I love them all, and I could go on for some time about why I do.
The feature I really like, that almost no other church has, are these windows.

Now some of you may not like these windows very much,
because after all the view outside is fairly pedestrian.
Out this one here we have a couple of suburban backyards,
and for all I know every now and then, if you stare out the window long enough,
which I know no one here ever would,
you can see the ordinary people who live there,
maybe they look in here, too, although they’re probably not even Catholic.
And out this other window you see this cornfield,
although I suspect that Father Tim looks out this window and sees a parking lot,
since that’s what he knows we need there,
although I’ll leave the talk on that subject to him and to another day.

Ordinary sights. But these windows are not ordinary.
Some people might want to fill them up with stained glass someday,
maybe that would be pretty, but I hope we never do.
Because the idea about churches is this:
you surround yourself with images that represent the most important symbols
in the life of your community.
And we are fortunate in that one of the most important reminders of what’s important
is right outside these windows:
It’s that mysterious place called outside
where our work and our worship is supposed to be making the world a different place.

Today’s gospel reading from St. Luke, near the end of the Sermon on the Plain,
gives us some of the most famous proverbs in English,
so famous that most of the people who use them probably have no idea where they came from.
And the one that reminded me of these windows
was this reminder that we take for granted:
We know a tree by its fruit.
Good trees bear good fruit, and the only way we know a good tree is by what it produces.

We know this,
and yet it is a threatening saying,
since it means that words alone, and good intentions alone, and lip-service alone,
don’t count.
You recognize authentic faith not by whether it says the right things,
or has the right idea about things,
by whether it loves others and reaches out to them in charity and reconcilation.
You recognize authentic community not by what it says about itself
or even by what goes on inside it,
by whether its life brings about a visible effect on the world around it.

As individuals, we worry a lot abot whether we are doing the right thing religiously,
about whether we pray enough, or read scripture enough, are spiritual enough.
It’s good to be scrupulous about these things,
but we remember today that without love in action they mean little.
Parishes are a little like people, too.
We worry a lot about what goes on inside this building,
from what our children learn to the music we sing.
But it is outside of here where we should check to see how we are doing.
The only measure of our liturgies that truly matters
is whether the liturgies we have here
enable us to change the world around us out there.
The only measure of our religious education program
is whether our children go out into that world out there
ready to talk about the gospel and do something generous for someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Nothing about how we run this place, or what goes on in here,
makes very much difference,
if when we leave here there is no change in the world out there,
no people who have been given hope or encouragement because of us,
no reconcilation or great undertaking that is the result of what we do here each Sunday.

Not many churches have the advantage we do,
these big windows where you can think about what’s right outside this church,
or you can use your imagination and picture all the places
where the results of our lives and this parish’s life might be seen, or might not be.
So I invite you, if you haven’t already, the next time you have a few minutes
during the liturgy,
to take advantage of these windows and think about how we are doing.
Sometimes if I think about it, I can imagine that I see some fruits from our efforts here.
Other times I can’t.
How do you think we’re doing?

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B (2003)

Recently I’ve had the experience of moving my parents
from a big house into a smaller apartment.
And if you’ve never done anything like this in your family,
when it does comes up, take my advice,
and do whatever you have to do to be out of town on urgent business
the weekend it happens.

It’s not the physical labor of doing it.
It’s not even the challenge of trying to sort through years’ worth
of accumulated stuff,
trying to make decisions about what you’re going to get rid of
to fit a whole houseful of things into a small apartment.
No, it’s the resistance that you meet at every step of the way
from the owners of these possessions,
every one of which suddenly has importance,
critical importance.

You discover things that represent a project that still might get finished someday,
even though it hasn’t been touched for years.
You discover things that represent some phase of life
that someone has a hard time admitting is long past.
It all looked like junk to me,
but that’s the battle, of course,
and while I was conspiring with my brother and my nephew
to literally sneak things out of the house,
and pretending that we were going to carefully take care of some of these treasured items,
when in reality we had a plan to get rid of them within hours of taking them away,
as, God forgive me, I’m doing those things, I’m thinking to myself,
I will never, never be like this about stuff
when it’s time to move on.

But of course, it won’t happen that way.
My track record of not doing things that I said I would never, never do,
is no better than yours.
I have said all kinds of things to my children
I swore I’d never hear myself saying.
All you parents out there, you know you have, too,
and kids, just you wait.
So I suspect that there will be a scene like this moving day somewhere in my future.

Because at some level, this is human life,
forming attachments that we hate to give up,
making rules that we always follow, even after they don’t make sense,
setting up things as important that we later refuse to admit
aren’t as important as we thought they were once.
We are not flexible people,
and we can be inflexible about important things critical to our lives
and about unimportant things, too,
and what’s worse, we lose track, all the time, about which are which.

Today’s gospel has something to do with the new and the old
and how we feel about them.
It’s not at all about the future always being better than the past,
about the new being better than the old.
But it is about attachments.

It’s another in a series of encounters early in Mark’s gospel between Jesus
and people who don’t understand why his rules seem different
from what they are used to.
This whole section is even called the conflict stories,
because Jesus keeps running into people who ask him:
Why do you seem to have made up your own rules?
What happened to what I thought was right?
Why don’t your disciples fast, they ask Jesus,
when John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees do?

Now Jesus fasted as well, like all Jews he fasted on the Day of Atonement,
but John’s disciples and the Pharisees were even more disciplined fasters,
they added fasts, they fasted every Wednesday and Friday,
and many other days.
They set a standard, people thought,
for what was pious.
And of course, they were pious.
How could you listen to this new holy man
who seemed like he was working with a new set of rules
about what was holy, and what wasn’t?

Jesus’s answer came in the form of these puzzling little images
of the garment that can’t be patched any longer,
and the wine container so old and brittle that it can’t be used for new wine.
We could be tempted to believe that what Jesus is saying here is,
forget all that need to fast and discipline yourselves,
that’s in the past.
That’s not at all what he’s saying —
in fact, he tells them that there will always be a time to fast.
He’s telling people that their attachment to an external sign,
to something changeable, to a discipline, a habit, a vision of themselves,
that these attachments can interfere with their ability to see God
when God is right there in front of them
and they don’t know it.

In these conflict stories it becomes clear just how new Jesus was — totally new.
Not the Messiah people were expecting, if they were expecting one at all.
We, on the other hand, like to think that we’re accepting of new things,
but the reality is,
we don’t like the new when it means we have to become new.

We don’t want to become new people.
We think the world would be turned upside down if we had less money,
if we decided that the life and the career we have weren’t right any longer,
if the church changed and something we’re very attached to,
something we thought was a sign of holiness,
if that somehow went away.
We’d be knocked for a loop,
and sometimes without even meaning to,
we hang onto an old way of life,
and our old standards,
when something new is right there waiting for us.
We like to call God “unchangeable,”
when in fact, that could be said much more accurately about us.
One psychologist says that at different times in our lives
our difficulty and exhaustion comes from literally carrying around a second self
that isn’t any longer alive,
but that we are hanging onto because we can’t imagine life without it.
The old wineskin, the old garment, the old self, waiting for the new one
that is always being offered to us.

We’re beginning our annual time of fasting this coming week on Ash Wednesday,
and it’s a season of repentance, as we all know,
but to repent is to turn again,
maybe to turn to something new.
These people who questioned Jesus in today’s gospel
were wondering if God could possibly be so different from what they had come to think.
The Pharisees, just a few verses after this gospel,
are already plotting how to destroy him.
If only we had enough confidence in God,
we could be different,
and be ready for the new with even greater eagerness
than we cling to what we have.

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B (2006)

I have never drunk wine out of a wineskin,
and if anyone here has,
I’d like to know the circumstances and your condition at the time,
so please stop and tell me about it after mass.
But here is what I have found out about traditional wineskins:
When they’re new, they’re flexible and can hold anything.
The point is that when they get older, as you might expect,
they get dried out and brittle and inflexible.
So that when you take an old skin and fill it with new wine,
something that’s still fermenting and fizzing and bubbling, because it’s so new,
an old, brittle container with a stopper in it just splits apart,
and as Jesus said, both the wine and the container are lost.

Pouring something new into people seems to have been a habit with Jesus.
Not new laws and new rules and new commandments,
in fact the old commandments to love God and our neighbor
seem to have been good enough for him.
But he always managed to find something new in those commandments about how to live
that some of his listeners found hard to swallow,
like wine with an unfamiliar and maybe a strong taste.

Again and again in the gospel there’s a scene like this one today,
the Pharisees complaining about someone else whose practice is different from their own.
Nothing makes them angrier than someone telling them, as Jesus does,
that other people, even the people they are complaining about,
are the very ones
who are more in touch with what God is doing at that moment than they are.
Those other people, Jesus’s disciples,
know the bridegroom is with them.
The Pharisees don’t.
So the outsiders turn out to be the insiders,
and of course, the Pharisees are left standing outside.
The Pharisees’ rules were supposed to bring them closer to God;
instead, they have only had the effect
of making them concerned about who follows those rules,
not about the new thing God is doing.
When the bridegroom appears, they can’t even see him.
They have become brittle and breakable, and angry.

So many reactions to Jesus are like this,
people trying to avoid making some leap into accepting something or someone.
Today it’s “not now” — they shouldn’t be eating now, who are these people?
There are plenty of people who say “not now” to Jesus in the gospel,
but there are plenty of other reactions that are variations on the theme.
There’s “not me”,
like the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus in some new way
but wasn’t ready to take a step away from the life he’d always lived.
And of course we have all those people who said “not them”,
who couldn’t imagine that sinners and followers of alien religions
and people their world regarded as unclean
could be people whose lives were more pleasing to God than their own.
Having to not only include but seek out and welcome people
who were formerly off limits
might have been what caused Jesus the most inflexible resistance of all.

Sometimes when we hear readings like today’s about Jesus
we think that what he is saying is, there are no rules,
don’t worry about fasting, about observances, about going to church.
But that is the easy way out of today’s reading.
What Jesus is asking us to do is much harder
than if he just told us to fast or to go to church.
He is asking us to give up the stiffness that over time has become something
that holds us where we are,
and makes us resistant to the new place God wants us to go.

Because whatever we have decided that we think
about who God loves and who God judges,
about who is unclean,
about what good people we are, about the path we’ve chosen,
we have to be aware
that those conclusions may have turned into our rules, not God’s rules,
and if they are our rules they may have dried out on us,
and we haven’t noticed.
Again and again, Jesus seemed to push people over the edge in this regard,
telling them that just the one thing they couldn’t accept
was the new thing they needed to accept,
and it was the brittle people, set in their ways,
who couldn’t hear it, simply because it all sounded so new to them
that it was impossible it could be true.

Lent starts next week.
And that means it is time for fasting, just as the Pharisees felt.
All those traditional Lenten disciplines, prayer and fasting and giving alms
are good things,
and we’re fortunate to be able to try to follow them with one another in this parish.
But they are good only if they take away
our hardness and stiffness,
they are intended to soften us up,
to get us ready for something new that God will show us,
ready to bend ourselves around to take in something
that we have resisted and resisted.
So no matter what else you give up for Lent,
keep wine like that on the menu.
It’ll hurt to stretch, but you’ll feel like a new person.