Friday, January 23, 2009

Is it I, Lord?

2 Sunday B #65

1 Sam 3, 3b-10. 19
Ps 40
1 Cor 6, 13c-15a. 17-20
Jn 1, 35-42

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 18, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

This Sunday begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father that all his followers be one so that the world might believe in him and in his message, his Good News of peace and reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins (Jn 17). Christ wills it, God wills it, that all be one. So it will be, one way or another, in God’s time. There is indeed one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, so that in fact, in a way, imperfect though it may be, we are already one. That lays an obligation upon every one of us Christians, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, to put away all resentment at past wrongs, hurts we may have suffered, and to forgive. And we beg those whom we have offended to forgive us as well. We must put away envy and pride even as our Catholic Church has a unique fullness of the means to salvation. That should make us all the more eager to serve our fellow human beings, Catholics or not, Christians or not, believers or not, in cheerful humility, always ready to proclaim and defend our faith, but gently and with respect for all.

Tomorrow we celebrate the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the next day the inauguration of a new President. We can all take pride in the way Senator John McCain and President George W. Bush have welcomed a Black man to the presidency of the United States. Neither of them voted for Barack Obama, we may safely assume. But each of them acknowledged the significance of this event. Two generations ago, my father witnessed a lynching. One generation ago, it seems like yesterday, Father Dugan, Father Richard John Neuhaus whom we buried last week, and thousands of us put our lives on the line in Selma, Alabama so that Black people might be able to vote. That civil rights campaign of the Fifties and the Sixties cost lives, so many lives, even four little girls’ lives, killed when their church in Birmingham was bombed. Young people need to know this history. We have to tell the story lest we forget how it came to be, how we won, how we changed America. Nonviolence won, the nonviolence we learned from a Hindu saint, Mahatma Gandhi, and from a Baptist minister, Martin King, and from our own Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez. The power of nonviolence has not been exhausted. In fact, it has been barely tapped. We may well have reason to turn the tap full open, and soon.

I’m sure we all join President Bush and Senator McCain in their best wishes and prayers for our new President and the success of his administration. But we will hold Barack Obama’s feet to the fire in the defense of life, of the life of the innocent, of the vulnerable, of the weakest, of the unborn and the elderly, of immigrants and the poor, of our own and the children of Gaza and the West Bank and Israel, of Iraq and Iran, of Pakistan and Afghanistan, all life, Mister President, all human life! We have the tools of nonviolence. We are prepared to use them. And if we must, pray God give us the wisdom and the strength to stand up, for we all called, all of us called to justice.

Today’s readings from First Samuel and from John’s Gospel are about a call, a vocation. “Is it I, Lord? I heard you calling in the night,” so goes the hymn. Yes, it’s you! Every one of us has a call. Just what is it that God is calling you to? Is it priesthood, diaconate, religious life as a sister or brother, marriage, lay life? How do you know? In today’s Gospel we learn of Jesus’ call to his first disciples. Matthew, Luke and Mark have Jesus address fishermen by the shore. He calls them directly, bluntly, “Come, follow me!” They leave their boats and their nets and follow. John tells a more subtle story. John the Baptist points Jesus out, “There he is, the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples then follow after Jesus. He notices and turns around to ask them what they want. They ask, “Where are you living, rabbi?” Jesus answers, “Come, take a look!”

That’s what I want to say to the young people here today. Come, take a look! How do you know that you are called to priesthood or religious life? If ever you have the slightest idea, talk to someone, to our pastor. Just as with Samuel, there is something mysterious about a call. Ignatius of Loyola didn’t know he was meant for priesthood until a cannon ball smashed his leg during the Battle of Pamplona. Don’t expect anything as dramatic as a cannon ball! It’s more like a whisper, as with Elijah on the mountainside waiting to hear the voice of the Lord. It wasn’t in the earthquake, or the fire or the storm; it was in a small still voice that only he could hear (1 Kings 19).

By virtue of our baptism we all share the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are to be mediators between God and our fellows, each one of us. That’s what a priest is, a mediator with God. We are to care for each other, not just spiritually, for we are not disembodied spirits. We are meant to care for each other soul and body, body and soul. God cares, Jesus cares, his Holy Mother, and our mother, cares, and the Church cares that you have decent work to keep a roof over your head and food on the table and fire in the hearth. We are heading into hard times. There is not an empty bed at our farm, and we have people sleeping on the floor at both our men’s house and our women’s house for the homeless in the City. It’s going to get worse. But our first needs are spiritual. Those needs are met with prayer, the sacraments, the nourishment that comes from studying the Bible and the lives of the saints. Ordained priests, like Father Ed, share the bishops’ role to sanctify, to teach and to guide the local community, set apart for that, not above but apart in sacramental priesthood. It is no secret we need more priests. There may be one young man here today, there may be more than one in this church right now, who are being called to priesthood. It may be you. Come, take a look!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Faith & Family


Gen 15, 1-6. 21, 1-3
Ps 105
Heb 11, 8. 11-12. 17-19
Lk 2, 22-40

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
December 28, 2008

Deacon Tom Cornell

The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. God came to us as a baby, in a family. Jesus, true God and true man, was a true baby, diapers and all, and a true toddler and all that means, and a true adolescent, like us in all ways but sin. He grew up in a family. He was formed in and by a family. His earthly father, the carpenter Joseph, is a model for all fathers, and his mother Mary for all mothers. The Holy Family is supposed to be a model for all families. Well, supposed to be. It doesn’t always work out that way. My most famous American relative was Lizzy Borden. Remember her? “Lizzy Borden took and ax and gave her father forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.” Yep, that’s Cousin Lizzie, a cousin on my father’s side. Our common ancestor was hanged by the neck until dead for murdering his mother, in 1673. There were worse, far worse in England. But that was long ago and I never knew any of those people.

The family I knew, my real family, was my mother’s family, off the boat from Italy a generation before I was born. Unconditional love was lavished on us kids, especially boys, until we were about twelve years old. Then boys were expected to go to work, part-time during the school year and full-time when school was out. Every Friday, the boys and the men handed over their pay envelopes to Mamma. The men risked their lives at hard and dangerous work, some died, “Christ in Concrete.” The women risked their lives giving us babies. That was the deal. We knew who we were.

For most of us, married life is the best, the best we can hope for on this earth. Mine has been wonderful, given the occasional bump in the road, but still, wonderful. We knew from the beginning, Monica and I, that if we tried to do God’s will, God would provide. And he did. I thank God and I thank Monica for seven descendants.

Our readings today are about family and about faith. Today’s reading from Genesis picks up the story of Abraham and Sarah when they were still called Abram and Sarai. The Lord told Abram, “Your own issue shall be your heir. ...Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the Lord, “and it was credited to him as righteousness.” That is, his relationship to God was right, correct. That’s what righteousness means, a right relationship to God. Thenceforth his name was to be Abraham, and Sarai’s Sarah, to signify that they were now new-born in faith.

We read, “God did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age,” when Abraham’s body was as good as dead. And in fact his descendants are as many as the stars, for Abraham is the father of all the Hebrews through Sarah and their son Isaac. And he is also the father of the Arabs, through his son Ishmael born of Sarah’s servant, Hagar the Egyptian. And if your heritage is Sicilian or Southern Italian, you too may well be a descendant of Abraham, because the Arabs controlled our ancestral lands for over two hundred years, long enough to leave a genetic contribution. The first time I went to Cairo I was amazed. All the men on the street looked like my uncles! Whatever our physical lineage, we are all spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah in faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims too in the Abrahamic faith. These days we are not encouraged to strive for many descendants. But let me remind you, dear friends here in this former home town of Margaret Sanger, the future belongs to the fertile!

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us of Abraham again as an example of right relationship to God by faith. Before our reading begins there is this. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists.” Then we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out.... He went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

You may have heard, our young people certainly have or will when they get to college, of the so-called “new atheists” and their books, best sellers on the market. There is nothing new about atheism. We read of village atheists in the Psalms, written a thousand years before Jesus was born! “In his heart the fool says there is no God.” You young people, if you begin to have doubts, don’t let that throw you, don’t be afraid. Come to our pastor, Fr. Ed, or to your college chaplain or to me. Our faith has to grow, mature and deepen. We do not go through life with the same understanding we had when we were children. I have had it out with quite a few atheists, some of them very good people. I could truly say to them, “The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. Your notion of God, your notion of what we Catholics believe, is silly, infantile.” Be that as it may, Dorothy Day taught that the true atheist is the one who refuses to see the face of Christ in the poor and the suffering, no matter what pious incantations he or she may make in or out of church!

Our Gospel reading today is from Luke, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. This is one of my favorite scenes in all Scripture, more so as I age and identify with Simeon and his “Nunc dimittis.” The old translation is so much more poetic. “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Nunc dimittis! When we go we take with us what we have made of ourselves, and obviously I don’t mean our bank account. I mean what we have made of our relationships, first to God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ who is Truth and Love. Then our relationship to our fellow human beings, first of all our families but also to the poor and suffering and the young. Then our relationship to all the rest of creation, the animals and even the earth we walk on and the air we breathe, as we have come to realize so much more clearly these past few years. All things are not relative, but all are relatives. Saint Francis called him Brother Earth and her Sister Moon. “Praised be thou oh Lord our God for Brother Wind and Air and Cloud and Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure!” Praise him!
From our family to all your families and our whole parish family, Happy New Year of Our Lord 2009. May you live in the light and love of the Holy Family of Nazareth now and forever.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Election 2008

31 Sunday A #148

Ex 22, 20-25
Ps 18
1 Thes 1, 5-10
Mt 22, 34-40

Newman Parish
University of Rochester
October 26, 2008

Deacon Tom Cornell

I have here a long sermon, about 2,000 words, five pages single-spaced. When I showed it to Fr. Brian he said, “Oh, no, Tom! These are college students. Give them a break! They’ve been lectured at all week! Have mercy!” Okay, here, I’ll put it down.

In a week and two days we go to the polls, many if not most of us for the first time. Our bishops have instructed us to consider “the life issues” as we decide how to vote, abortion and embryonic cell research, euthanasia, intrinsic evils, and the death penalty, and unjust war and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. And our unjust immigration policy, poverty here and abroad and the threats to the earth and sea and sky, the very air we breathe by climate change and our part in it.

The right to life covers a broad area. The right to life does not end at birth. And the right to life includes by necessity the right to the means to life. That means food, clothing and shelter and medical care. But it also means the right to education and training for an honest job that pays a living wage because without these there is no decent life for us or our children. And let me add torture. Torture is also a crime against life, condemned by the Second Vatican Council.

Our bishops have not addressed issues that address the political order as such, for instance the erosion of civil liberties in the so-called “War on Terror.” In a university setting, it is not inappropriate to take note of the expansion of the powers of the President these past eight years, usurpation of powers to put it more accurately, under the concept of the unitary executive and how that affects human dignity: the power to override Congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health care, the power to wage undeclared war, the power to create military courts to try civilians, the power to seize and transport anyone to secret prisons in foreign lands, to authorize torture. Never has the Constitution been under such attack, and few seem to notice. In these days of economic turmoil, our attention is on matters closer to home.

No party and no candidate fills the bill when it come to our needs at home or our foreign policy. Neither party comes clean on Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to weigh matters and all too often we have to choose the lesser of two evils. No candidate and no party has offered a full employment goal or a living wage policy. A family should be able to live on the salary of one full-time working parent. That has been the teaching of the Catholic Church in this country since World War I. And yet we still don’t have it. In fact, for the past thirty years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, we have been going backwards.

The American worker is the most productive worker in the world, we like to boast. For every hour of work the value of what the worker has produced has increased. In the past, wages and productivity have risen together, more or less in step. If workers produced more, then they earned more. But not for the last thirty years. The buying power of all but the top 10 percent of our population has actually declined since 1973. The minimum wage, if it had kept up with increased productivity over the past thirty years, would now be close to twenty dollars an hour instead of less than the seven dollars it is today. Everybody’s wages would rise as we shared the product of our own labor! Take a guess where the extra profit has gone. It’s gone to the same people who engineered the economic crisis we are now entering, the worst since 1929. Democrats as well as Republicans have allowed this to happen. The blame lies at both their doors, and at our own too because we let it happen. We were asleep at the switch.

No matter who wins on November 4th, our country, our society will have much the same problems we have today. Our problems are at base spiritual. Because our problems are at base spiritual they must be addressed spiritually, with the weapons of spirit. The weapons of the spirit are first of all prayer, the prayer we say with or without words alone in quiet and the prayer we pray together here today as we break open the Word of God in Scripture and share the Sacrament of the Altar breaking bread together, the Body and Blood of the Savior.

Then the works of mercy, the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless and the rest. We must cultivate a merciful and loving attitude to those in need, not a judgmental one, not a “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” way of thinking. Pray God’s mercy upon us. Pray that he take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. And the spiritual works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are as important as the corporal: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those in grief, pointing out their errors to those who are on the wrong path in the spirit of charity, forgiving those who have hurt us and praying for them.

Our national problems, our societal problems can be laid out on the grid of the seven deadly sins. The same vices that beset our private lives bedevil our common life: pride, greed, envy, sloth, lust, anger and gluttony. The cure for them can be laid out on a grid too, the virtues that are their opposites: for pride humility, for envy kindness, for anger patience, for lust self-control, for gluttony temperance, for greed liberality, for sloth diligence.

Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama mentioned greed in their last debate. They might have gone down the list to include each one of the vices. Gluttony! If everybody on earth wasted as much as the average American does the earth’s resources would run out in a very few years. Our bishops pledged that they would voluntarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a sacrifice for peace. Meatless Fridays are no longer obligatory, except in Lent. That’s why it’s even better to skip meat on Fridays, because you don’t have to, you want to. And it’s a good idea to skip a meal or two every week and send what you save to a soup kitchen or a food bank. Fasting and almsgiving cancel out sins, so the ancient fathers taught.

Voting is important, a duty, but it is not enough. This country has never made any social advance unless the people rose up and demanded it. So we learned in the labor movement, so we learned in the Civil Rights Movement. So we learned during the Viet Nam war on the streets and in jail cells and in prison.

The kind of struggle we need, this country needs, will be long and hard and it’s going to cost. The kind of struggle we need can not be sustained by weak tea, I mean by a watered down faith. We need a strong and deep faith, strengthened and deepened by prayer and the sacraments.

Let me tell you a story. My friend Igal Roodenko was born in Philadelphia of a secular Jewish family in 1911. His first language was Yiddish. Igal was very well loved in our Catholic Worker community, although he was an atheist. He earned a master’s degree in plant pathology at Cornell University before World War II so that he could go to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state there, “a land without people for a people without a land.” That’s the founding myth of the modern Israeli state, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” But then as Igal completed his course work, it occurred to him: there are people in Palestine. They are Palestinians. They have been there for thousands of years. They would resist having their land, their homes and farms and businesses taken from them. The Zionists would have to kill lots of Arab Palestinians to control Palestine! Igal could not eat meat. He was a vegetarian. He couldn’t even eat a fish! How was he going to kill an Arab?

Igal went to prison in World War II for three years for refusing to kill Germans and Japanese. He told me more than once that he would have loved to be able to join the army and take part in the great adventure of his generation. But he couldn’t go. He just couldn’t. In prison he met men he would never have found in the course of ordinary life, men who thought as he did. There were, and are, few of them, but more of them today. Together they studied the nonviolent theory and practice of Mahatma Gandhi. These men studied and argued about nonviolence and about our country’s social problems, and came to the conclusion that race is the fault-line in this society. They determined that after the war, after they were released from prison, they would apply Gandhian nonviolence to the race issue. The first Freedom Ride was not in 1960 – the photos you may have seen of the bus burning in Anniston, Georgia. The first Freedom Ride was in 1947, and every man on that ride spent World War II in prison for refusing military service. Igal served thirty days on a chain-gang in Virginia for sitting next to a black man on a bus. Those men sparked the great movement that finally dismantled the legal structures of racial segregation in this country, and, it is not too much to say, they saved this country.

Not long before he died, Igal reminisced. He said to me, “I’ve been in the Movement for a long time.” (He meant the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the peace movement.) “The Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies and the Eighties. There were all kinds of radicals. There were Communists and Trotskyists and Socialists and anarchists and you Catholic Workers. Now they’re all gone. All gone but you. And you are stronger than ever. You know what it is, I think, what keeps you going?” “Tell me Igal, what is it?” “I think it’s your religious faith!” Igal did not die an atheist.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus restate the Two Great Commandments of love, love of God and love of neighbor, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he expands neighbor to include even the foreigner, even the enemy. If we love God with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves, then we will not be content just to vote. We will want to take our part in the struggle for peace and justice with all our hearts and minds and strength, the nonviolent struggle for the beloved community, the only struggle that can truly claim to have God on its side.