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Monday, March 31, 2014

Preaching Lent on St. Patrick's day

Click here to see the readings that are chosen for the second Monday in Lent.

This year, the second Monday in Lent also happened to be St. Patrick's Day. I happen to be giving a parish mission in the most Irish town in the United States, Sharon, Massachusetts, on St. Patrick's Day. I was prepared to talk about Lent, but was quickly made to understand that forgetting about St. Patrick's Day, especially with a name like Cooney, and especially being named Patrick, would've been a mistake of biblical proportion. So, if you've had a chance to look at those readings, take a look at what I had to say, and see if you think I pulled it off alright! At the morning mass, I gave this reflection as the homily.
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So, how hard can this be, right? I have five or ten minutes to give a little telescoped version of the tonight's mission talk, and, you know, it's nothing too heavy...our participation in sin, the call of Lent to remember who we are, to remember our baptismal promises and the people they call us to be,
maybe start from the scriptures of the day so we have a place to hang all that as we go through the day today, and then (your pastor) Fr. Scott (Euvrard) says, "Oh, and we celebrate St. Patrick as the patron of the archdiocese today." So put another ring in the circus of my remarks! Here we go.

First of all, then, happy feast day to us. I'm a Patrick, and proud of my heritage, proud of the people from whom I come, who were both preservers of the faith and some of its most active missionaries, people of poetry and song, who produced saints great enough to imagine heaven as a party with Jesus and the three Marys at a Great Lake of  beer.

To remember all that as we start today is perfectly in sync with the theme of our mission, even though it didn't occur to me when I was originally preparing for it. We're considering our baptismal promises, and part of the baptismal promises is believing in the communion of saints, so it's perfectly fitting to remember Patrick and all the saints of Ireland, including the parents and godparents, bishops, priests, and sisters whose missionary spirit and love of God brought the church and the gospel to this side of the Atlantic, as well as the faith and selfless love of those ancestors who came across looking fr a better life and built the roads and railroads and sailed the ships, worked in the factories, and wore the civic uniforms that helped  to build this country into a strong and prosperous nation. And for all that, we thank Patrick, the patron of Ireland and the archdiocese of Boston, even if he was from an Italian family, because God does that kind of thing for laughs sometimes. "Do you believe in the communion of saints?" Well, we're wearing green, aren't we? And the whole state smells of corned beef and stout.

Now, about those readings and our mission. There is a sense in that first reading, from the book of Daniel, that things are going badly for Israel, and indeed they were, but there is this persistent memory that God has always been good to Israel and even though things look really bad, God is faithful. Israel blames itself, or rather, the author of the book of Daniel blames Israel, for its unfaithfulness to the covenant as the source of their troubles. I think we have a more nuanced way of thinking about this. Certainly Jesus didnt promote thinking that bad things happening to people was any kind of direct punishment from God.

But there is a sense that we all contribute to the evil in the world, the suffering of humanity, by the little things we do or neglect to do that are self-serving or make us happy at the expense of other people. We all help to poison the well, a little bit at a time, and eventually there's no escaping the fact that we all have to drink from the well. Injustice, bad stewardship, and oppressive behaviors come back to haunt us as crime, pollution, and violence. We take care of our own, even if it means making others unable to take care of their own. Our justice is retribution and intimidation and deterrent by force. It works for a while, but I think we see that there are forces arming both sides all the time, so the violence escalates, and while what we want is security, what we end up with is escalating fear.

French anthropologist Rene Girard proposes that we humans learn by imitation. Specifically, he says we learn to want things from watching what other people want. He calls this process mimetic desire. We see what others want, we see it would be good to have, and we start wanting it too. This inevitably leads to conflict when individuals or groups end up wanting the same thing, conflict when escalates toward violence in big and small ways. He reasons that religion enters into the picture by creating rituals that refocus the violence on a scapegoat,  asking god or the gods to remove the violence by the killing or driving off of an animal or even a person, to substitute for the violence or crimes of the people. The scapegoat ritual punctures the violence, which subsides for a time, but the ritual needs to be repeated over and over in order to deflate the violence. It works for a while, but not indefinitely. There is still war and violence in the world.

The gospel proposes another way. "Be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful." what Jesus wants us to do is change our desire. Jesus wants us to change whom we imitate. Instead of imitating the god "of this world," Jesus says, imitate the Father, who lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the good and bad alike. Instead of sowing fear, sow generosity. Instead of sowing condemnation and judgment, sow mercy and forgiveness. When we can break the cycle of retribution and pettiness and judgment, as surely as those things escalate when left unchecked, we will experience generosity, mercy, and forgiveness ourselves, and not in the future, as some reward after death, but here and now, in this life. Imitate MY god, Jesus says, put away your sword, sit down at table together, welcome the outsider, bend down and wash each others' feet. 

To finish this morning, I need to tell you that I believe that this path is the gospel, but this path is not easy. In order to do this, we have to believe it, and stick together. That's what baptism does, and that's what baptismal promises are for. As Chesterton said in the early part of the 20th century, "Christianity hasn't been tried and found lacking; it's been found difficult, and untried." My friend and mentor, the late Fr. Jim Dunning, always told us, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Repenting, turning around from our habits of greed and violence, is hard. The very least we can do as Christians is not imagine that our participation in them is some version of good. We need to see evil for what it is, and stop it, turn around. I suggest to you that the only way out of the mess the world is in is through the gospel, and, necessarily, the cross. But like the Jewish author of the book of Daniel, we have hope, because God is always faithful, and God already does for us what God expects us to do for each other: forgive, bend low, be lavish and generous. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Let's do Christianity, Christians, even if we do it badly, and keep turning around until we are walking together in the reign of God.