for a video of this homily, click here
September 19, 2021
Mark 9: 33-32
Because the parking was always bad, I used to park at St. Mary’s when I was teaching and walk the five or six blocks to campus.
And I saw a lot of things on those walks over the years.
One beautiful sunny morning in the fall, as I was nearing the English Department, I saw a young woman in a wheelchair who had paused on the sidewalk about a block away. I think she had cerebral palsy. And as she waited there, she dropped her water bottle, and it rolled off the curb into the gutter, where clearly she couldn’t reach it. She couldn’t bend over from her wheelchair. She could barely move.
And before I had a chance to react, a young man with a beard came riding by on his bike, in a hurry. But as he approached the intersection, he seemed to see what had happened, and he stopped, and he got off his bike, and he bent over and picked up the water bottle and handed it to the young woman. They exchanged a few words, and then he hopped on his bike again and shot away.
It was just a moment, on a sunny morning, in September. But it moved me.
“God comes, and his ways are near to us,” St. Oscar Romero says:
Each person’s life, each one’s history, / is the meeting place God comes to. / How satisfying to know one need not go to the desert to meet him. / God is in your own heart.
I don’t think a university is any better or worse than any other world, but it’s the world I happen to know, and I can tell you that the idea of the first being last and the servant of all wouldn’t really work on a tenure and promotion or a scholarship committee. The rule in a university is competition, the rule is trying as hard as you can to be the first, not the last, and to fill up your classes, too. Receiving just one child, as Jesus urges us to do today, wouldn’t be enough–it’s all about numbers–and taking the Letter of James as a guide for recruiting would never work. Come to OSU and learn “wisdom?” Come to OSU and learn to be “pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant”? No one would sign up. We have to promise money and status and prestige.
Becoming a deacon sidetracked me in the English Department, it took me out of the game, and I have to admit that I always struggled with that. I wanted to surrender to God’s will, I prayed for the grace to let go, but again and again I found myself still trying to impress everyone—sometimes, in fact, by trying to show them how humble I was. See? Look at me not caring about what you think. I’m way better than you.
And now I’m retired, and retirement is a kind of dying, too. It never ends. I’m so glad to be away from OSU and the pressures of it, I’m so glad to be retired, but aging is a spiritual practice, too, or can be, and what it involves is a slow stripping away of whatever authority we might have, whatever power, and everything depends on how we face that or whether we do.
But isn’t this what it means to be a deacon? Isn’t this what being a deacon has always been about?
“Be humble,” Pope Francis told the deacons of Rome this June. “Let all the good you do be a secret between you and God. And so it will bear fruit.”
Like the boy on the bike. He didn’t know I saw him do what he did. He couldn’t put that on his resume. It was a secret, between him and God.
The boy on the bike is the figure of the deacon. The boy on the bike shows us what we should do.
We have to stop. We have to climb down. We have stoop. And in the world, on the street corners, on the curbs.
We have to help those who need us to reach what they cannot reach on their own.
The logic of the diaconate, Pope Francis says, is the “logic of lowering oneself,” as Jesus lowered himself, as Jesus stooped. “If there is one great person in the Church,” Francis says, “it is the one who has made him or herself the smallest,” and it’s in this sense that the diaconate is prophetic. “Deacons,” the Pope says, “precisely because they are dedicated to the service of the people, remember that in the ecclesial body no one can elevate himself above others.” Deacons, he says, can help overcome “the scourge of clericalism,” the idea that priests are a special “caste” of people, “above the People of God.”
This has to stop, and deacons can help stop it—but only by being deacons, by resisting our own clericalism, our own deep desire for status and prestige within this institution we so love. We have to try to see all the embarrassments we suffer, all the ways priests and laypeople misunderstand us or dismiss us or leave us out, we have to see all these things as maybe the most important, the most central part of our ministry.
We have to be willing to be mistaken for the gardener, again and again. Jesus was, in the garden of the tombs, in the garden of stone, and in this is all our freedom, all our joy.
“Who will put a prophet’s eloquence into my words,” St. Oscar Romero says,
to shake from their inertia / all those who kneel before the riches of the earth– / who would like gold, money, lands, power, political life to be their everlasting gods! / All that is going to end. / There will remain only the satisfaction of having been, / in regard to money or the political life, / a person faithful to God’s will. / We must learn to manage the relative and transitory things of earth according to his will, / not to make them absolutes. / There is only one absolute: he who awaits us / in the heaven that will not pass away.
We are just the boy on the bike, all of us, and no one will see us, and that’s enough, that’s everything, because it’s morning, it’s a beautiful September morning, and the sun is shining, and God is here. He is always here, on every street corner. He is here, at every intersection, at every crossing.