Sunday, September 15, 2013

Seeking the Sheep and the Coin

The following is an abridged version of a sermon I gave this morning at First Church in Winthrop, United Methodist.

Let us reflect on today’s Gospel, in which Jesus teaches us how to welcome others who want to enter the kingdom of God: “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep. Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.”

Last Saturday I went to Chelmsford to help a young Walmart worker named David Coulombe. Organizers alleged that David’s manager illegally retaliated against him for going on strike to protest Walmart’s unfair treatment of workers. So we held a demonstration outside the store in the parking lot. Almost a hundred people were there. Let’s say it was 99. Then we sent a group to the store to ask the manager to remove the disciplinary action from David’s record.

I was part of the delegation, and before we headed off, I asked the demonstrators, what is the name of the manager? People shook their heads. Nobody knew. One fellow said, “I don’t know his name. We’ll call him ‘Mister Manager.’ ” I didn’t like this answer. I thought it dehumanized the manager and demonized him, making him inferior to us, making him a monster.

Finally, we asked David Coulombe, and he told us. [Out of respect for the manager’s privacy, I will keep his name offline.]

And I said to myself: Everybody knows David. They know what a great guy he is. They know his story, his struggle, his hopes. They shook his hand, talked to him, prayed with him. They met his mother, who was also at the rally. They passed around a bucket and collected $400 for him to make up for the hours of work he lost. They loved David. He was a saint. And they hated the manager. He was a sinner.

At the rally the people compared David Coulombe to King David of Israel, taking up his slingshot to fight Goliath, Walmart. I wonder what the manager was thinking. Did he think that he himself was Goliath, and we were out to destroy him? I said to myself, it would hurt our cause to make the manager the enemy. Walmart was the problem, not the manager. The manager was a soul who could be won over. It would do David no good to surround him with 99 allies if we could not persuade his one opponent to cross the divide between them. What if, instead of awakening a feeling of compassion for David, our presence turned the manager away, the one person who could change David’s situation with the right decision, the one person we came to make peace with through the work of justice?

We would lose, and David would lose, if we lost sight of the manager’s humanity, and his capacity for good. If we lost him, we would lose David. And we would lose ourselves.

Fortunately, the delegation was a success. We left the group of 99 on the edge of the parking lot and crossed over the lot to the other side, to the sidewalk of the store. There, the manager was waiting for us. He had been watching the demonstration the whole time. We introduced ourselves and stated our concerns. I handed a letter from the community to the manager. Now the manager and David came face to face and spoke to each other. The manager said he had an open-door policy, and the next time David was at work he could meet with him to discuss the disciplinary action. This was what we were looking for. David agreed to see the manager the next day.

At that moment, salvation became possible. The manager acknowledged David’s grievance and David met his employer as an equal.

When we crossed back over to the side where the 99 were standing and told them the good news, the cheers went up. I know the cheers were only for David Coulombe, but in my heart I said a prayer for his manager, too. For although they were not yet one in brotherhood, the manager took a step closer to David and his supporters.

Jesus says, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep. Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.”

The story of David and his manager is not an “Amazing Grace” story. It’s not about God saving you and me; it’s about God telling us to seek salvation for our neighbors. To sweep every corner for every lost coin and go the extra mile to bring every sheep home. Our sinning neighbors and our suffering neighbors.

The kingdom of heaven is good because every person God has made has a place in it. The tax collectors and the Pharisees. The guilty and the innocent. The murderers and the martyrs. The manager and David. They all belong, and they all belong together, and they all belong to each other.

We refuse to let any person, the sinner or the victim, be “lost.” We will shine the light and bring them to light, out of the earth, up from the dirt and the shadows. We value the lost coins, the David Coulombes in our community. We will allow no one to treat them as worthless. But we must also value the lost sheep, like David’s manager. We should not rest until all hundred sheep are back in the fold. Because when one sheep goes astray, the 99 suffer.

And so we pray for David Coulombe and his manager. And we pray our church will rejoice and be glad when they come into the kingdom. Amen.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Preacher and Scholar

With fraternal life, prayer, ministry, and school, the occasions for blogging are narrowing. Posts will be coming intermittently, I fear. 

But I continue to do writing, now of other kinds. I am preparing to preach penance using the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep at a United Methodist church this Sunday. I am writing reading responses and reflection papers for my courses on the Second Vatican Council and feminist theology.

If you will pardon the self-indulgence, I will share some of these works, homiletic and theological, with you in the months to come.

I will begin this occasional series with a paper I submitted for my feminist theology class. The exercise was to do a mapping of the world of feminist theologies. The following is an excerpt, with citations omitted.

It is with hesitation that I venture to make a map of feminist theologies. I hesitate, not because I have been forbidden to enter this terrain, although I confess I have disinvited myself simply for being a male, among other rationalizations. It bears constant repeating that feminist theology is not “women doing theology,” as Rosemary Radford Ruether points out. Men may join this enterprise, and they do not need to join a guild or obtain a license to begin. Yet it does feel exceptional for this male religious to be “doing” feminist theology, and so it makes me feel self-conscious, even lonely....I would be interested in hearing more about women shaping men shaping theology, and the males these pioneers have welcomed into their hermeneutic community.

I also hesitate, not because I cannot see as my feminist sisters have seen, although I confess that I have missed many things on the paths they have marked, or have purposely hidden some things from my sight. I hesitate because I have too little practiced seeing and speaking with women doing theology in a feminist form, too little practiced their methods of naming and judging reality. I am loath to make my own map of places in which I have not dwelled.

Could these equivocations be the manifestation of the masculine need for competence, for a preference of mastery over and against the lure of mystery? Must the descriptions a map shows us be taken as literally definitive? I sense that people doing feminist theology are concerned to practice a more limited kind of cartography: God-talk as an indicator of the Spirit.

If I were to introduce someone to the complex of feminist theologies, I would ask them to imagine a constellation or constellations of stars. Each star shines with an inconceivable brightness, with its own unique color and magnitude. Each star illumines the sky and provides an orientation for the beholder. But each star is also known in relation to the stars neighboring it. Seen in such relation, the stars form a constellation; the constellation presents itself to the beholder as an image or as a plurality of images. By the interplay of these bodies of light in their presence and absence, their nearness or distance; in the ways these bodies travel toward or away from each other; in the regularity and irregularity of their movements; and in the traces they leave in their courses, we discover other stars and other constellations and come to see more of the cosmos.

And so I recognize the universe as illuminated by the “leading lights” of feminist theologies: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, secular; assembled, either constructively or systematically, into constellations; and viewed as meaningful images through the lenses of gender, race, class, ethnicity, nation, and sexuality, among others. We use many instruments to obtain a better sight of what we perceive: theory from the disciplines of biology, economics, history, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and others. Theologians working in a feminist framework are like astronomers of grace, and they have heralded transformations of perspective through a succession, or concurrence, of Copernican revolutions. Kwok Pui-lan, for instance, shows us that feminist theologies did not emerge, like the planets of a solar system, from a single star, but coalesced from common nebulae (i.e., cultures), all of them stars in their own right, all of them sharing in the process and substance of formation. No single body is merely single; no single body is stable, immutable for all time. There are many, many bodies in this universe. No single body of theology is the center of the universe. The universe itself is expanding continually, and it is a lot older than we thought! (Who is the first Christian feminist theologian, after all? Mary Daly? Ruether? Was it not Mary, who “named” Jesus? Or Mary of Magdala, who “named” the risen Christ?) Thus these theologians are also astrophysicists.

The authors we read document the influence of the academy as a space where communities of learners could train their visions, challenge one another to sharper visions, and hand their (in)sights on to new generations. To extend the astronomy metaphor, the seminaries and universities where feminist theologians worked became their observatories. From their place on faculties they could mentor younger seekers “with stars in their eyes.” The observatory where I learned to see by the light of my sisters, seeing what they see and how they see, is Boston University School of Theology. There, the stars of alumnae Anna Howard Shaw and Georgia Harkness give off bursts of light of comparable magnitude to their fellow luminary, Martin Luther King Jr.... [My] mentors and friends destabilized my given perceptions of God, Bible, and vocation, but they also enlarged my powers of perception with high-magnification lenses and sophisticated tools of analysis.

Perhaps it is in this appreciation that we find true cause for my reluctance to map feminist theologies. My sister theologians, vanguards of an apophatic tradition, have helped me see by revealing my “not-seeing.” The question is, do I dare to have confidence in my not-seeing?

Another Day

Yesterday was Sept. 11, 2013. God has given me at least twelve more years since that day, which could have been my last day. 

Yesterday's Sept. 11 felt like the most ordinary of all the anniversaries yet. Curious, since last year and the year before were painful anniversaries. I was anticipating a difficult day because of precedent and because I've had some intense and vivid dreams lately. But, thank God, it was a serene day.

Pausing for a while in the chapel at the School of Theology Ministry building at Boston College, I thought of the Gospel of John and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who said of his life, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again."

And a feeling of consolation, with great conviction, came over me. For those who have faith, who trust in God's Word, no one can take their lives from them, no matter what others do to our bodies. For those who have faith, they will, like their Messiah, give their lives freely, and by the power of the God who raised Jesus, they will take up their lives again, because they will be raised up by God.

This is what God showed to me on Sept. 11, 2001, although I did not understand it then. This is what I am receiving today from the event that was Sept. 11. I am receiving the faith to lay down my life willingly. Today is another day, but that day, the day I lay down my life with Jesus Christ, is still coming.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

... and for Syria

One of my novice brothers, a friar of the province of Central Canada, is a native of Syria. How his heart must be breaking every day over the awful events.

His brothers in Boston answered the pope's call for prayer and fasting today. We recited the Office for the Dead this afternoon. We also went to various Masses and prayer services for the people of Syria living through this nightmare. I joined a service of solemn vespers held at the Paulist Center in downtown Boston. We sang an arrangement of the Magnificat, the sublime prayer of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, that we often sang in the novitiate. I remembered the tenor harmony and let it float on top of the choir's stately and gentle performance.  

I pray this nation will listen to what the Church says and do only good things that will stop the violence, start peace, and let justice reign. I pray this nation acts generously to aid the wounded, the sick, and the refugees. I pray especially for the Congress, which must now consider what the president has asked of it, to authorize unspeakable force. Thirty percent of the members of Congress are Catholic. Do they know the just war doctrine of the Church? Do they know the doctrine of pacifism that preceded the development of the just war theory?

Do any of those Catholics really believe that adding more destructive force to the typhoon of destructive powers swirling mercilessly over the people is going to destroy the violence? 

National self-interests aside, have these lawmakers considered that to confess Jesus as Lord and to be a Christian precludes forever the use of unjust means to achieve just ends? Have they considered that the means of war may be one of those means which in our age can no longer be even remotely considered just? 

Have they considered, as the ancient apologist Tertullian did, that when Jesus Christ told Peter to sheathe his sword in the garden of Gethsemane, he effectively sheathed the sword of all who would be warriors, now and through the end of time?

May God show us, each one of us, the wisdom to speak the words of Christ and do his works of mercy and justice.

Prayer for David and Goliath

The following is a non-denominational prayer I offered this morning for the 80 Walmart workers nationwide who say they were illegally retaliated against for going on strike this summer against the corporation for better pay and working conditions and more dignified treatment. It was given outside the Walmart store in Chelmsford, Mass., and dedicated to David Coulombe, a Walmart employee there who was given a reprimand and a cut in hours for his participation in the strike.

Before I offer this prayer, let me speak the truth to power. Walmart is not God. Walmart is acting like Goliath. We do not want to be like Goliath. We want to be like David. Today we are with David. Today we are all David. And like the ancient hero of Israel, we face Goliath without heavy armor, without powerful weapons. We do not have money or great wealth. We have each other, and we have the power of love.

We do not seek anything for ourselves. We seek peace. We did not seek this conflict, but we do not fear it, either. We have not come to curse anyone. We come to offer a blessing.

Let us join together in a spirit of prayer.

We gather as persons of many faiths and of no faith, but however we believe, we gather as one people.

And whatever our beliefs, whatever our religion, we know there is something sacred about this assembly today.

Whether we believe in one God who is all good, or we believe in no God at all, we remain united in our work for the common good.

And whatever our belief about God, we know this much: greed is not our God. Injustice is not our God. Walmart is not our God.

In many of our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, we call one another sister and brother. In our union halls and worker centers, we call one another sister and brother. Today, in this assembly, we call David Coulombe and the Walmart 80 our brothers and sisters.

And today, with the hope of God's blessing, we ask the manager of this Walmart to recognize David as a brother. We ask the manager of this Walmart: Treat David as your brother, treat him as you would want to be treated. He has done you no wrong. Take back the punishment you illegally and unfairly imposed on him.

And to every Walmart manager we say: Pay all your workers fairly. Give all of them a living wage and the chance to work full-time. End the intimidation and the silencing. End the retaliation, for it is not holy.

And we call out to the executives and board members and shareholders of Walmart: Change, change your ways today. It is time to do business differently. It is time to do business generously. It is time for a new Walmart.

Finally, we ask Walmart to stop saying that we the people who speak out have no connection to Walmart. This is our community! You are in our community! Your workers are our brothers and sisters! Your business is our business. And for God’s sake we will not be silent about this business, and we will not keep still until we see the vindication of our beloved community.

And so today we call out to God—to a God who is present in the cry of the poor—and we call out to the absence of God—for where there is no justice, there is no God. Spirit of God, be upon us and anoint us to preach the good news to the poor. Empower us to do your justice, love your kindness, and walk humbly with you. Gladden the hearts of David and the Walmart workers and unharden the hearts of their managers. Help us stand with David through these trials until the seeds we sow here in peace are harvested in justice.

We ask for this in the name of all that is holy. And I ask for this in the name of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, the God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty, who brought down Goliath and raised up David.


Friday, September 6, 2013


Wondering, at the moment, how to get the blogging done, when there are many other things to get done! Priorities, priorities, you know.

Those priorities are as follows:

Praying: always vital, and never more vital than today with a more activist ministry and more challenging intellectual formation thanks to Boston College. Liturgy of the Hours -- morning prayer, evening prayer, night prayer, every day. Mental prayer, every day. Eucharist, every day. Prayer with others, whenever opportunities arise. Prayer on my own, whenever and wherever I am.

Reading: in all my spare moments, and in the moments I cannot spare, too. I will be reading more and reading faster than I have been doing these last two years. Will lectio divina disappear from my practice? Heaven forbid it! I will share with you some of the titles on my syllabuses as the year unfolds and as the pages turn.

Organizing: Renewing relationships, making new relationships, gathering people and resources in a way that will build a horizontal power among religious activists, a power that can be put at the service of low-wage workers. Yes, we who have privilege are gathering our powers in order to give them away. And by this example of being and doing, we hope to call the vertically powerful who order our economic life and our society to do likewise. At least that is the aim as this young Franciscan frames it, at Mass. Interfaith Worker Justice and the Boston New Sanctuary Movement.

Agitating: it's more fun than organizing, but without good organizing, there is no agitating. In truth, most of my time at Mass. Interfaith Worker Justice and the Boston New Sanctuary Movement will be hidden from the public eye, making connections and strengthening communities that are committed to personal and corporate transformation in the world.

Cooking: it's my turn this afternoon. Here comes salmon, brown rice, Asian slaw, salad, and cookies.

Meditating: now, on the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep for a visit I will be making to the United Methodist congregation in Winthrop, Mass., next Sunday.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Life is a railway, and my train just got a little longer, and my locomotive is moving faster now. Time to feel the acceleration!

This morning: a meeting of one of my province's internal committees. I am the newest member of the New York/New England Capuchins' Justice, Peace, and Ecology Commission. This group of friars meets three times a year to discuss our efforts as a provincial fraternity to promote our charism of peace-building through social and economic justice and care of creation. We heard updates on two groups with whom we are affiliated, Franciscan Action Network and Franciscans International; learned more about our province's continuing efforts to be socially responsible investors; and got a report on our efforts in global solidarity with brothers in developing regions. We also took a look at internal practices and policies of the province and considered an opportunity to train our friars in ecological stewardship.

Then, for the first time in five years, I went to school. Attended my first class on the Second Vatican Council with Prof. Richard Gaillardetz. It is a lecture and seminar, so we must come as ready to voice our questions and reflections as to listen. I'll be back on campus tomorrow for my first class on feminist theologies and theory with Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale of the order of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Labor Day? It was just like old times on Monday in Cambridge, with speechifying from janitors and security officers and elected officials and labor leaders. We romped through Harvard Yard to call the university to account for daring to consider layoffs of janitors at the Medical School. On the way to Harvard we stopped at another school, Cambridge College, to assert that their security officers will not be denied a union, and they must be bargained with in good faith.

Just made it home in time for evening prayer! It took an hour and twenty minutes on the subway from Boston College to Jamaica Plain. Rush hour is either the most inapt or most Orwellian turn of phrase, depending on your degree of cynicism. I pledge to keep my balance as this locomotive careens on sharp curves -- school, ministry, and family life. But it's not really the curves that are sharp; it is the velocity at which I go that makes them dangerous. Let us accelerate with care!

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Labor Day weekend is high holy days for Interfaith Worker Justice, my once and future ministry. The organization and its network of affiliated interfaith groups celebrates Labor Day at hundreds of congregations nationwide through its annual worship program, Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar. Local IWJ groups coordinate with ministers to plan liturgies with themes on faith, work, and justice; bring workers to the congregations to speak about their struggles for dignity and their human needs; and invite people of faith to get involved in this religious movement for economic justice for all workers.

In the Greater Boston area, Mass. Interfaith Worker Justice extends Labor in the Pulpits into the fall. Your humble friar helped kick off our 2013 season of Labor in the Pulpits by speaking at the Masses celebrated this weekend at Immaculate Conception Parish in Everett. I spoke after communion about a campaign to raise the minimum wage and achieve sick days for low-wage workers. The people of the parish were welcoming, gracious, and most receptive to my appeal and call to action. It only stands to reason: Everett is very much a working-class city, and the parishioners understand the economic and moral reasons for treating workers fairly. It's a matter of common sense; it's a matter of faith. What a privilege it was to address them and to be nourished through them with the body and blood of Christ. I know they will serve, as Christ, their working neighbors as they serve one another. I hope to find many other Catholic communities like this in my travels with Mass IWJ this year.

Shortly, to meditation and evening prayer with the brothers. Perhaps some baking this evening as a kind of leisure. Tomorrow, a little more delayed gratification, as I postpone rest and continue Labor Day activities with Mass IWJ. Namely, we will join the janitors and security officers of SEIU Local 32BJ, District 615, in their annual Labor Day march for good jobs. Then, I'll have earned the right to veg out, gastronomically speaking, at our friars' cookout!

May the liberating God of Jesus, son of a carpenter, bless and protect all workers. May this gracious God bless all our labors and help us to make God's work our own on this earth. May we become co-workers in Christ, aided by all the saints, from Joseph of Nazareth to Dorothy Day.