FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, November 17, 2019:
One of my favorite comic strip shows a ragged-looking man in tattered robes with a long flowing beard walking down a crowded city street carrying a sign proclaiming doom to everyone who reads it. The sign says simply and ominously, “The end is near.” And, about five steps behind that man is a second man carrying another sign that simply reads, “The end.” The end…is near!
Well, my friends, I’m here to tell you today that the end is indeed near! Actually, there are a lot of endings that are near. As we embrace the Autumn weather, we know that warmth is more-or-less over and cold of winter is beginning to creep in. Thanksgiving in a few weeks reminds us that November is almost over. The Christmas decorations that are out in the stores already, tell us that Christmas will soon be here and that another year is almost over. As I said, the end is near!
And here in church today, we enter into the final two weeks of our Church year. Two Sundays from now, we embrace Advent once again, a new Church year, and so today and during these next two weeks our Scriptures also turn to the same theme that the end is near. The first reading from the prophet Malachi proclaims, “Lo, the day is coming!” In our Gospel, Jesus gives a prediction about the end of the Temple, “All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” And He is asked, “When will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
I think He is asked these questions because we all have a natural anxiety about “the end.” We ask, will we be ready? Will we be among the chosen? Will we make it to Heaven? One of the things I love to do when working with our young people is to give them a chance to ask any faith question they want answered. Not surprisingly, they often ask questions about this very topic – they want to know about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – they want to know about the End. We see this in our culture periodically. Just think about the turn of the new millennium. There were lots of articles about the end of time; or those focused on the so-called Mayan prediction that the world would end in 2012 (we’re still here). It seems every 10 years or so there’s yet another person or group who claims to know when the end will be and how it will happen. If we choose to look at the negative in our world – our negative political discourse, the scourge of guns and drugs, the endless wars – we can probably read any of those as signs of the end.
This is nothing new. Historically, just about every age has thought it would be the last. And to all of this, Jesus said, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”
I don’t know about you, but I find these to be comforting words. I don’t find it problematic that we don’t know when the end will come. I think Jesus wants to convey basically two things to us today. The first is this: Do not interpret the crises of the world or even the crises of your life as if they were the end-of-the-world. We tend to do this far too often, and when we entertain this train of thought, we are not following the will of God. We are instead simply giving in to our fears and anxieties. We are letting fear win the day and rule our lives, instead of letting God rule our lives. We are letting anxieties rule our hearts instead of God’s love and peace. Our God is not a God of fear and anxiety – He is a God of love, peace, kindness, joy, compassion and healing.
The second lesson is that there will be many people who will come claiming to be true prophets, saying that they speak in Jesus’ name. I think of some of the televangelists that you see on TV who – for just three easy payments of $19.99 – will tell you exactly when the end is coming. But, the truth of the matter is that Jesus tells that even He doesn’t know the day or the hour when the end will come. Those who say otherwise are nothing other than false prophets. Jesus says clearly today, “Do not follow them.” The greatest sign of a false prophet is that they attempt to sow fear in the hearts of people. Even the political dialogue currently in our country seeks only to sow fear and anxiety about the future. Our world is too full of fear-mongering, fear-sowing voices. Again, Jesus says, “Do not follow them.”
So, what are we to do? Well, a true prophetic voice is always one that spreads the hope and confidence, the encouragement and peace that comes from the One True God. A true prophetic voice reminds us that we can live through all of the crises of our lives, all the challenges we may ever face with peace in our hearts and with a sense of hope and trust that our God has not – and will not – ever abandon us. And we know this is true because we have lived through challenges with God at our side over and over and over again. To a world that proclaims, “The end is near,” our God counters, “Be not afraid. I go before you always.”
So whether we are worried about the end of the world, or the end of our own lives; or maybe we’re just worried about some of the relationships in our lives that could be better, or the ways we can grow in our own personal holiness, Jesus wants to say this to us today: that in the face of challenge and trial, it is the peace in our hearts, it is our hope and trust in God that become the seeds of new life. Cast out all fear and anxiety and let these seeds of faith help to carry us through all of the difficulties and the joys of life. Jesus tells us that what truly gets us through life is worship and fidelity to our God; working through challenges with forgiveness; changing the things that can and must be changed; and developing a patient endurance that will consecrate and transform all of our suffering into glory. Jesus’ message dares us to trust that, even in difficulty, God still reaches out to us with love and with hope and new and abundant life bursts forth. “Be not afraid, I go before you always.”
My friends, the end is near….or not. But, nothing will ever happen that we cannot handle as long as we have the help of God.
May the Lord give you peace.
R. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, November 3, 2019:
One day, a young turtle slowly began to climb a tree. After great effort, he reached the top, jumped into the air waving his front legs, and promptly fell crashing to the ground with a hard knock. He brushed himself off, climbed the tree again, reached the top, and again hit the ground with a thud. The little turtle persisted again and again while two birds watched with sorrow. Finally, one bird said to the other, ”Honey, I think it’s time to tell our son he’s adopted.”
I don’t know about you, but as a child, I loved climbing trees. I grew up on the edge of the woods so there were seemingly endless trees to choose from. Trees had a magnetic quality to them. I couldn’t be near one without resisting the urge to climb it. I loved nothing more than climbing up a tree as high as I could. It seemed like you could just keep going, and, if you got high enough, it almost felt like you could fly. Everything – the whole world – looked so different from high atop a tree. It gave a new perspective to everything. I don’t recall feelings from my childhood that felt quite as free as climbing a tree. Somewhere along the line though, we hear an anti-tree message. We hear that it is dangerous, that you might hurt yourself, the tree might break, you really shouldn’t be doing it! But the memories of those eternal moments of freedom high atop the branches swaying in the wind lingers.
We heard in our Gospel today, Zacchaeus “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.” What can this image teach us today? Zacchaeus was the he chief tax collector in Jericho, and so was one of the richest men in Israel. As chief tax collector, he moved in the highest circles, and he had power — and lots of it. He was also a crook, a collaborator with the Roman enemy, and a target of hatred for his countrymen. He’d always thought of himself as successful. But suddenly, at the height of his career, it dawned on him that his life wasn’t working. There was a void at the core. He was regarded as a public sinner, as a traitor and as someone unclean before God. Although he was financially well to do, he lived of life of loneliness, alienated from his own people and from God. There was no joy, and intuitively he understood that there would be no joy as long as he continued on the same path.
Picture this scene if you can. Here is perhaps one of the most feared men of his community, someone who would be likely surrounded by an entourage, and now he is running like a child and climbing a tree to see this poor, relatively unknown preacher who was passing through town. And you know what? This new perspective, found high up in a tree, was liberating for Zacchaeus and it changed everything for him.
Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus in the tree, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He hurried down the tree with a big smile on his face and the crowd made way for him as he led Jesus to his house. Take note that at dinner Jesus did not preach to Zacchaeus that he must repent or he would go to hell. Jesus did not issue an edict of Zacchaeus’ sins that he must correct before Jesus would speak to him. Instead, Jesus showed him a non-judgmental and unconditional mercy, love and acceptance that spoke more eloquently to his heart than the best sermon ever could. The effect? Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” By giving half of his wealth to the poor and using the other half to repay fourfold all those he had defrauded, Zacchaeus’ wealth would be all but gone. But he had realized one of the great truths of life – all of the money in the world can’t buy you happiness; all the power in the world can’t give you the meaning that comes from a life with Christ.
Zacchaeus learned what many people learn once they take the time to stop, climb a tree and see things differently – the world wants to sell us a way of life that is ultimately empty – only Jesus can bring things that are truly meaningful into our lives. How many of us have our priorities in the wrong order? How many of us spend our days accumulating wealth, working endlessly to have a better job, a bigger position, one that offers more money, more power, more prestige. Only to discover at the end of the day that it is empty, that it does not bring any greater level of happiness or peace at all – in fact, it may be the very thing robbing us of quality relationships with family, friends and ultimately God. The author Jack Higgens, was asked what he would like to have known as a boy. His answer: “That when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”
Jesus challenges us today to have the courage of Zacchaeus and climb a tree to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, a Christ perspective. And He promises us that if we do that, we too will be liberated and set free from all that ties us down, that binds our lives and relationships, that keep us from the happiness He promises.
There are figurative trees in front of us all the time, just waiting for a climb. There are the chances to gain a new perspective in our faith life with God, but how often we walk past because we fear that we might get hurt, that we might not be strong enough, that it might be dangerous. Every time we seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation; every time we come to the Table of the Lord for the Eucharist – these are tree climbing moments. God offers us here the chance to see things differently; to see them as He sees them; to make a change that will bring true happiness. We only have to embrace it; to climb; to be free.
If we take the time to climb the tree that leads to a deeper faith, we just might find a greater freedom than we have ever known in life. The tree gave Zacchaeus the ability to see Jesus instead of the world that he knew; the world that clouded his sight. If we have the courage to take our lives of faith to this new perspective we too will hear Jesus say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” So, my friends, let us go climb a tree!
May the Lord give you peace!
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 27, 2019:
Earlier this week, I had the chance to visit some friends that I haven’t seen in about three years in New York City. Aside from their poor choice in sports teams, New York City is an amazing place. This city of over 8 million people has an energy and diversity that is very exciting to be a part of. There is always something going on in New York – new buildings are constantly going up, there are endless artistic experience – the museums, the symphony, Broadway. It is a place of seemingly endless creativity. There’s even a saying that captures this spirit – locals like to say that New York will be a great city – if they ever finish it. It is a place where virtually every aspect of the city – the people, the places, the buildings, the communities – are constantly evolving and changing. It is an endless work in progress.
Our Gospel today wants to say something similar about being works in progress as it picks up from last week when Jesus told us to “pray always without becoming weary.” If last week’s message was about being persistent in our faith life, this week wants to remind us that it is okay to acknowledge that we are all still works in progress.
Jesus gives us this story of two believers - the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both believe in the same God, both belong to the same religion and both worship in the same temple. But, at the end of the day, one of them goes home at peace with God and the other doesn’t. The Pharisees were disciplined and devout men of religion. They were serious believers who committed themselves to a strict life of prayer and observance of God’s Law. In fact, they went far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week even though they were only required to fast once a year. They gave tithes on all their income, not just parts of it. When the Pharisee said, “I am not like other people,” he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I bet few of us today could measure up to the external standards of the Pharisees. The Pharisees acted as though they were finished products. They had achieve religious perfection and should be admired and emulated for it. There was no room for them to grow in God’s plan. They were certain that they were better than the rest.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. They worked for the Romans occupiers, mixed with them and constantly handled their unclean money. They were said to be in a state of religious impurity. Tax collectors were considered public sinners of the highest grade. But the tax collector in our story still hoped for salvation. He knew that God was not done with him yet and in humility placed himself in God’s tender care.
Sometimes, especially in the church, we can create the impression that the church is meant only for the perfect. And that could not be further from the truth. Pope Francis understands well our need to realize that we are not completed projects, but always on the road to closeness with God. In The Joy of the Gospel, he said for example, “The Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak…Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a [tollbooth]; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
Simply doing all of the external prayers, devotions and other acts of faith we can muster doesn’t save us. God isn’t waiting for us to complete 1,000 rosaries, or donate $10,000, or receive the Eucharist 5,000 times. Now, these are all good things designed to lead us closer to God, but they are not meant to be a checklist for salvation or a source of our self-righteousness. But if all that we do never converts our heart to be more like God’s heart, they are not accomplishing their goal. And this is the key difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told this parable because the Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
The tax collector trusted in his need for God’s mercy. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knew that he was a work in progress and that God was the master craftsman who would help him become the person he was created to be. And their story is today our story. Just like them, we too have come to God’s house today to offer our prayers. May our prayerful hearts be the same the tax collector. God isn’t finished with us yet. He is still working on us. We are clay in the potter’s hands – and our prayer should be that he shapes us as He wants.
In fact, we already know the most powerful prayer by heart: Thy will be done. Make of me what you will – not what I will. Let us again today bow our heads, fall to our knees, humble our hearts and whisper the words God is waiting to hear. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I am a work in progress. You’re not finished with me yet. And I am grateful for your love, your compassion, your mercy and the time you give me to grow as your son, your daughter. This is the gift that God values above all others: the prayers of a humble heart. Let us offer those prayers today and always until God is finished with us.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 20, 2019:
A CCD teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet for her class. She had been told the combination, but just couldn't remember it. Finally she asked the pastor for help. He began to turn the dial, but after the first two numbers, paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally he took a deep breath and looked serenely up to heaven as his lips moved silently. He looked back at the lock, and confidently turned the final number, and opened the lock. The teacher was amazed and said, “Father, I'm in awe of the power of your prayer.” she said. “It's really nothing,” he answered. “The combination is written on the ceiling.”
I think if most of us were honest, we would admit to an uncertain relationship with prayer. We struggle with wondering when to pray, how to pray, how much to pray. We wonder if our prayer works. We bring the greatest frustrations and challenges and hopes of our lives to prayer – our broken relationships, our desire for change, our struggle with sin, our hopes for a new job or a new relationship – we bring so much, and how often do we find ourselves wondering, “Is anyone up there? Is there anyone listening? Why doesn’t God answer my prayer?”
And to these questions our readings today give us examples to inspire us in our life of prayer. The reading from Exodus gives us a curious image of Moses. As we heard, “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” What a great image of trust and perseverance in prayer. Israel went into battle trusting Moses’ power given him by God. Moses prayed literally with the weight of his arms outstretched which held the weight of the people’s expectation upon them. God showed He works through people who work with Him; so don’t be weary. If we trust in God, God will help us triumph.
We also heard in today’s Gospel, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” Again, the story of the bad judge and the persistent widow is a story about our need for prayer and God’s faithfulness to us. On the surface, this seems to be a pretty simple parable about how we should be tireless in our prayer. But, this is not an encouragement to try and wear God down with our prayers. Prayer, or persistence in asking, is more than just multiplying our words to God in order to wear Him out.
Jesus reminds us that a life of prayer is not occasional; it is meant to be constant. It is not one way, simply asking God for things; but it is conversational. We can’t engage in drive-through prayer, simply popping in on the Lord when we need something, and taking off again when we get it. No, a life of prayer is a relationship with God that never gives up. Waiting, hoping, watching, and longing, are all parts of this loving conversation with God. We’re called to be constantly engaged in the conversation of prayer; faithfully bringing our needs, our joys, our lives to God – sometimes grumbling and questioning, sometimes praising and thanking, but always persisting in the relationship. Prayer is a way of life; a conversation of life.
It reminds me of an experience in my own life that taught me about perseverance in prayer. My parents were married in 1965; my Mother a lifelong Catholic and my Dad never baptized. Dad becoming a Catholic was something my Mom always prayed for, and when I was old enough to understand, I began to pray for it too. Especially once I entered the seminary, I thought Dad would become a Catholic. In fact, I began to pray at Mass every day, “Dear God, I ask that you place within my Dad a desire for Baptism.” Beautiful prayer, but, still nothing happened. As I got close to my ordination to the priesthood, I thought, a little Irish guilt might work. I said to my Dad, “You know Dad, nothing would be more special to me than to be able to offer you Holy Communion at my first Mass.” Still nothing. And still we prayed. I even had my emergency plan for Dad. Should he get sick and it looked like he might not make it, I was going to baptize him whether he wanted it or not; and let God sort things out later!
But, then, just before Dad’s 70th birthday, he called me on the phone and said two words to me, “I’m ready;” and I knew exactly what he meant. And, in the greatest honor of my priesthood, I welcomed my own father into the faith baptizing him, Confirming him, and giving him his First Holy Communion. And in the midst of that, I could hear the words of Jesus, “Pray always without becoming weary.” I realize that everything happened the way it should with my Dad – not in my time or Mom’s time or according to our plan – but in God’s time and according to God’s plan; which is always perfect. My Dad was always in conversation with God, and sought baptism when he was ready. That’s the challenge of trusting in prayer.
“Jesus told his disciples about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” Instead of falling into doubt or question in our prayer; instead of chastising God for not answering our prayers in our way or our time; instead of giving up on our prayer because of uncertainty or length of time; God calls us once again to be faithful and tireless in our life of prayer with Him. Like Moses, we hold up our hands in prayer, confident that God will bring us victory if only we will trust in His will; His Word; His ways; His plan; and in His time.
Pope Francis said, “In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and could lead to a hardness of heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of the boundless love God, in order to experience his tenderness.”
Let me end with this reflection on prayer: I pray because I am a Christian; and to do what a Christian must do, I need help. I pray because there is confusion in my life; and to do what is right, I need light. I pray because I must make decisions; but the choice is not always clear, so I need guidance. I pray because I have doubts; and to keep growing in my faith, I need help. I pray because so much in my life is a gift, so I need to give thanks. I pray because Jesus prayed; and if He considered it important, so should I.
My friends, let us be renewed as we dive once again into the sea of prayer trusting God to answer us in His way and in His time.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 28th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 13, 2019:
One night a Mom overheard her young son praying as he was kneeling by his bedside, “Dear Lord, Mommy said that I should pray that you help change me to be a better boy. So, if you can, please make me a better boy. But, if you can’t, don’t worry about it. I’m having a great time just like I am.”
We heard in our Gospel today that “he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Our readings today invite us to think about themes of healing, mercy, and gratitude. In our first reading, Naaman the Syrian is healed from leprosy. His response is a wonderful example of gratitude. Having been healed, Naaman recognizes that God was powerfully at work through Elisha the prophet, and he makes a public profession of his conviction. He said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”
Our Gospel is also clearly about healing, mercy, and gratitude in this account of the healing of 10 lepers. We heard the lepers approach Jesus crying out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Jesus heals them, and “one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Now, most homilies on this passage will focus on why this one came back and the others didn’t – in fact, I think I’ve preached about that once or twice myself. But, today, I want to think about this in a different way – in a Eucharistic way. There’s more going on in this passage than the mere fact that sometimes we’re thankful and sometimes we’re not.
In our readings today, whether it is Namaan or the leper in our Gospel – we see something important about their gratitude. In each of them, the very act of giving thanks changes them. God did something for them and then, the God-centered gratitude in their hearts helped to change them in an even more amazing way. It had an effect on them. Their change was not merely superficial. God changed more than their illness. God changed their hearts. And this is where the Eucharist comes in. The Eucharist is, of course, the other primary place today that we hear the word thanksgiving. The very word Eucharist comes to us from the Greek word meaning “to give thanks.” So, when we gather here, we are like Namaan or the man in our Gospel. We have returned glorifying God in a loud voice and giving thanks. That’s what we do here every time we gather for Eucharist. We don’t come to get something – the Body and Blood of Jesus; no, we come to give something – our hearts full of gratitude for God’s miraculous presence in our midst.
So, let’s talk for a minute about what happens in the Eucharist. Have you ever really thought about how it is that we believe that what is bread and wine become completely and fully the Body and Blood of Jesus? After all, we always have the problem of our natural senses. Our senses tell us that it still tastes like bread and wine, and yet our faith tells us something different. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the glorified Christ becomes present under the appearances of bread and wine in a way that is unique, in a way that is Real.
The Church's traditional language says it this way: in the act of consecration during the Eucharist, the "substance" of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the "substance" of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the appearances of bread and wine remain. This change at the level of substance from bread and wine into the Body and Blood is called “transubstantiation” – from one substance to another. Does that clear it up for you? Obviously, this language of substance and appearance doesn’t exactly excite us or make our hearts soar.
But let’s think about it a little differently. Many changes in life involve a change in appearance. Think about a child reaching adulthood. The appearance of the person changes in many ways through life growing up, but who that person is on the inside, remains the same person—they are the same substance. Over the years, they’ve gotten taller, older, thinner or heavier, smarter or not, more mature hopefully – but through it all, they are still the same person. So, a change in appearance is only on the outside. But, a change in substance is much more important – it is a change at the deepest level. And just think in your own lives for this one. Have you ever known someone who has had a total conversion of person? Maybe yourself or someone you know? Maybe they didn’t have any faith, maybe they were the meanest nastiest person that you knew, but something changed in their life – either an experience, a realization, perhaps an encounter with God – and they became radically different – they became joyful, loving, Spirit-filled whatever. Their deepest reality changed and that happened regardless of any change in appearance.
This is what is going on in the Eucharist. Of course, God could change the bread into the outward appearance of human flesh, and the wine into the outward appearance and taste of human blood. Nothing is impossible for God. I for one, am glad that He doesn’t do that. Could you imagine? Instead God changes what is most important – He changes its deepest reality, the very identity of the bread and wine into the full and complete presence of Jesus, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.
But it doesn’t end there. If it were only about what happens to the bread and the wine, then that still would be a miracle, but not one that changes the world or any of us. The power in that change, is that what we see and believe God is doing in the bread and wine, we see and believe God will do in us. Thanksgiving – Eucharist – changes us. We see and believe that God changes simple bread and wine into the Body and Blood of His Son and we believe that through our sharing in that, through our reception of that Body and Blood, through our giving thanks, we too will be changed into the Body of Christ for our world.
The closing prayer for Mass last weekend said it beautifully, “Grant us, almighty God, that we may be…transformed into what we consume.” Or as St. Augustine said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.” So, we receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist that we may become the presence of Christ for each other and for our world. We are meant to come here giving thanks, and then leave here each week to go out and share His presence and His love with our world. Only then can God do to the whole world, what He has done to that bread and wine and what He does to us – change us into His Son, make us and the world a place full of love and joy and healing and compassion.
The challenge of the Eucharist placed before us every time we celebrate, is three-fold. We are challenged to recognize that what happens at this and every Mass is an event unparalleled – God becomes really present in our midst through the Eucharist. We are challenged to recognize that by our sharing in this Eucharistic meal, we too become living, breathing, walking, talking Tabernacles of the Lord’s Presence. We carry His presence physically in ourselves when we receive. We need to reverence ourselves and each other as bearing that Presence of Christ. And finally, we have got to be that real presence of Jesus in our world in all that we say, all that we do, all that we are.
This is the Eucharist; this is Thanksgiving! Giving thanks changes us! If we have the courage to embrace that, to believe it – most importantly to live it – each one of us here, imagine what could happen outside these doors. Imagine what the Kingdom of God might look like.
“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Let us fall at the knees of Jesus, thank Him, and let this act of Thanksgiving change and transform us into His image, His body, His very presence in our world.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 6, 2019:
One day a man was hiking when he lost his footing and fell off a cliff. As he was falling, he grabbed the branch of a tree. Hanging there, dangling, unable to pull himself up, he decided to yell for help. He looked up and shouted, “Is anyone up there? Throw down a line and save me.” Suddenly he heard a voice from heaven, “Yes, I am here. It is the Lord. Do you believe in me?” The man shouted back, “Yes, Lord, I believe in you. Please save me.” The Lord said, “If you really believe in me, you have nothing to fear. I will save you. Just let go of the branch.” The man paused for a moment and shouted back, “Is anyone else up there?”
Let me ask you a question: Is the man in this story a believer? Of course, he is. After all, in his moment of distress, he turned to God. But, the story shows us that there is a difference between believing in God and trusting in God. The man couldn’t make the so-called leap of faith and trust the voice of God. We might laugh as we hear this story because maybe we can recognize ourselves in this man. We too believe in God – after all, here we are gathered in Church for Mass – but sometimes, particularly when the going gets tough, we so often take matters into our own hands or look for help elsewhere. We believe, yes; but sometimes we don’t trust.
Today’s Gospel about the mustard seed is familiar to us as Jesus reminds us that even the smallest bit of faith can work wonders, “can move mountains.” Even the tiniest faith can make miracles possible. But there’s another point here that we often miss. It is the reminder of how much God values even things that are small – things as small as a mustard seed, things as small as you and me, things as small as our needs and concerns, things as small as the simple faith-driven things we can do each day to make our world a better place. After all, small is the very way that God came to earth – as a small, beautiful baby who didn’t even have a place to lay His head. And even though He arrived as a small baby, that presence changed the course of the whole world – and the course of each one of our lives. God does great things with small.
Someone who knew this better than most is the church’s newest saint – St. “Mother” Teresa of Calcutta. St. Teresa dared to embrace and love those nobody else would even touch, and knew that the smallest effort could bring the greatest reward. She once said, for example, in the face of the countless number of hungry people in the world, “If you can’t feed 100 people, then just feed one.” She knew that if we all do our small part, it all adds up to the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis expressed a similar theme recently when he said, “Yes, you pray for the hungry. But, then you feed them. That's how prayer works.”
We are reminded that God asks precious little of us – just a little bit of faith, just a little bit of action – but that if we offer these things to Him, He will bless them, he will make them holy, he will multiply them and make them great and even miraculous good works.
So, don’t be overwhelmed by the hunger in our world – just feed one. Don’t be anxious about the homelessness that surrounds us – just do what you can for one. Don’t be afraid of the anger and hatred in our world – just love one. And then, another and another and another and another. God will do great things with our small acts of faith and goodness. God loves whatever small things we do.
Let me end with something that St. Teresa said. It is called her Anyway Poem:
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, others may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give your best anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
My friends, let us “Stir into flame the gift that God gave you.” Let us offer what little we have to God. He does wondrous things with the little we offer. Believe the truth that your faith can move mountains. Your actions can change the world. Then have the faith and be the change the world needs.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 29, 2019:
In 1950, Albert Schweitzer was named the “man of the century.” Two years later, he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. All of this, because he proved himself to be a man of deep faith called to live a life of heroic action. When he was 21, Schweitzer promised himself that he would enjoy life until he was 30 and then he would get serious. On his 30th birthday, he kept his promise and enrolled in university to get a degree in medicine. He promised that he would go to Africa and work among the poor as a missionary doctor after graduating.
His friends and family all tried to change his mind. “Why would you waste your life?” they asked. Nevertheless, by 38 he was a doctor and at the age of 43, he left for Africa where he opened a hospital on the edge of the jungle in Equatorial Africa. He would work there until his death at 90 years old in 1965.
What motivated him to give his life to work among the poorest of the poor? He said that it was today’s Gospel. “It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life, while so many people around me were wrestling with suffering. I had to do something,” he said.
In today’s Gospel passage about the rich man, what was his sin? Did he order the poor Lazarus removed from his property? Did he beat him or shout obscenities at him? Did he otherwise directly harm the man? No. He did none of those things. The sin of the rich man was worse – he never even noticed Lazarus. He accepted this poor, sick, destitute beggar as just another part of the landscape. The sin of the rich man was doing nothing to help Lazarus when he should have. His sin was clinging to his personal wealth while not lifting a finger for the poor.
Pope Francis makes this point in The Joy of the Gospel. He wrote, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? It cannot be this way. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?”
I think this is, in part, why God chose to come among us as a poor, homeless person. Have you ever thought about that at Christmas time when we set up our beautiful nativity sets? These are really scenes of a poor, homeless family with nowhere to lay their heads. God chose to enter our world precisely in the places and in the people and in the ways that we, today, so often turn a blind eye to. When we look at the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless, the helpless, what do we see? Do we recognize them as icons of the very image of God as He was when He came to us?
We know that the poor are all around us here. Our city and region struggles with unemployment, with a heroin epidemic, with homelessness and hunger. In many places, you can find a homeless woman or man huddled under a blanket or a cardboard box. As we pass them by, do we see God present there when we see them? This is where He is present today.
I think this is exactly why Jesus came to us in a family, and one that was homeless and migrant and in need of the help of others. Because He wanted us then and now, to look at our own family, to look at the homeless and helpless around us, and to see that God is present there too; they are not the “other”; they are our brother, our sister, our family; and to reach out to them in need.
Pope Francis reflected a few years ago on the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle where Thomas places his fingers in the wounds of Christ. He said, "Jesus reveals Himself in His wounds and so the path to our encounter with Jesus are His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked because and is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. These are the wounds of Jesus today. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus. We must caress the wounds of Jesus. We need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness. We have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. To enter into the wounds of Jesus all we have to do is go out onto the street. Let us have the courage to enter into the wounds of Jesus with tenderness.”
So, what are we to do? Well, that will be different for each one of us. It starts with seeing the most marginalized people in our society as our brothers and sisters, as people in need of God’s love expressed through our prayers and actions. Jesus reminds us today that the only thing that is not an option is to do nothing. Our faith calls forth so much more from us. We are all called to reach out to the world around us – especially the world in need; especially to touch Christ in His wounds. If we have the courage to do it, we will be changed for the better by it; changed to be more like Christ.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 15, 2019:
There’s a short story I came across by Richard Pindell called “Somebody’s Son.” It opens with a runaway boy, named David, sitting by the side of a road writing a letter home to his mother. The letter expresses the hope that his father will forgive him for all that he has done to wound his family and accept him again as a son. The boy writes: “Dear Mom, In a few days I’ll be passing home. If Dad will take me back, ask him to tie a white cloth on the apple tree in the field next to our house.”
Days later David was on a train rapidly approaching his home. Nervously, two pictures flash back and forth in his mind: the tree with a white cloth tied on it and the tree without a cloth on it. As the train draws closer, David’s heart begins to beat faster and faster. Soon the tree will be visible around the bend. But David can’t bring himself to look. He’s too afraid the white cloth won’t be there; too afraid that he will be rejected; too afraid that his father will not forgive him and accept him back.
Turning to the man next to him, he says, nervously, “Mister, will you do me a favor? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see a tree. Tell me if there’s a white cloth tied to it.” As the train rumbles past the tree, David stares straight ahead. And then, in a quaking voice, he asks the man, “Mister, is a white cloth tied to one of the branches of the tree?” The man pauses and then answers, “No. There’s not a white cloth on one branch, there’s one tied to every branch!”
Pope Francis regularly reminds us that, “God never tires of forgiving us.” This story of David and his father, illustrates the same point that Jesus wants to make today in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a message so simple, so profound and yet so often overlooked – God loves us; God always forgives us; He forgives us generously, repeatedly, lovingly, joyfully. And nothing can take us away from that love and forgiveness – and we are called to forgive others in the same way.
This parable is one of the best known and one that just about anyone could recall, but it’s one that I’m not sure we always appreciate in its depth. Yes, we get that the Son sinned. Yes we get that the Father forgave him. And yes, we get that the older brother didn’t like it one bit. But, this story is meant to teach us not only more about the depth of God’s love and forgiveness for us, but also more about how we are meant to truly love and forgive each other.
We live today in a world of broken relationships. There isn’t one among us here who hasn’t been touched by divorce – whether directly in our own families, or extended family or friends. There isn’t one of us here who doesn’t have a broken relationship somewhere in our lives – a friendship destroyed, a misunderstanding overblown, regretted words spoken and never taken back. But, the myth of the world is that we have to accept that brokenness and believe that those relationships can never be healed. Jesus tells us something different and gives us the opportunity to restore, heal and reconcile the broken relationships in our lives.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of broken relationships. The younger son has severed the relationship with his father. He recognizes his wrong actions and wants nothing more than to be accepted again into his father’s household – not in the status he had before, but even just as a lowly servant. That’s supposed to be us – recognizing our sin, approaching our God asking to simply be allowed to remain a member of His household; of His family. And, what is the father’s reaction to the younger son? He is overjoyed at the son’s return. He says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
And the real kicker is that this is not just a story. Jesus tells us that God deals with us the same way. God will always forgive us with joy. “God never tires of forgiving us.” And, he expects us to do the same with each other. We pray it every day, “Forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is the bargain we make. God forgives us and restores us to His family and He wants us to forgive each other the same way. There is a story about President Lincoln. Someone asked him how he would treat the South after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln responded, “I will treat them as if they’d never left home.” This is how we are meant to forgive as well – as God has forgiven us. We are called to forgive others and take them back into our hearts with the same generous love that God shows us.
Jesus came to establish a beautiful cycle of forgiveness. He came and died for our sins on the Cross. He gave us the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that when we sin, the forgiveness that God offers is never further away than the nearest confessional. And He invites us to model that forgiveness that we receive in the way we deal with one another. And yet, how frequently we look at that cycle of healing and say “no thank you.” Our confessionals remain unused. The forgiveness offered their remains unaccepted. The sins we carry remain on our hearts, effecting our lives, effecting our relationship with God and with each other. And yet, all we ever have to do is ask for it, and God says over and over and over, “Your sins are forgiven. Live in My love.”
As we hear this beautiful parable once again, let us banish from our hearts whatever it is that keeps us from seeking out God’s love and mercy found so beautifully through confession. Let us allow our loving God to take away our sins, and invite Him to help us find the healing we need in the broken places of our lives. Imagine living each day with those wounded places healed; those sins forgiven – renewed in God’s love and mercy. If we do this, we can be sure that when we depart this world and approach the gates of heaven, we too will see a tree with a white cloth tied to every branch. So, let us not be bound by the hurts and wounds we carry, but be freed by the forgiveness God extends to us and we can extend to others.
Let’s end with a prayer. Please close your eyes and bow your heads as I pray. Dear Lord, show me your mercy and fill my heart with your forgiving love. I am the younger child who ran away and has returned home. Thank you for receiving me back. I am also the older child who finds it hard to forgive sometimes as you forgive me. Touch my heart with your forgiving love. Help me to know the peace, the joy and the freedom that comes from dwelling in and offering to others Your forgiveness.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 8, 2019:
A number of years ago, I remember watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show. The topic that day was “looking for love” and they had a group of women explaining what they were looking for in a husband. Most of them were looking for the kind of things you would expect on a daytime television show – they wanted to find a man who was really rich and could treat them the way they’d like; others were looking for someone who was extremely handsome so that the two of them would make a beautiful couple. Just about all of them were naming qualities that were pretty superficial. But, I still remember this particular show all these years later because of the answer of one particular woman. She said, “I’m looking for a man who understands that he needs to love God more than he loves me.” Her answer was surprising, even shocking, given the rest of the show. But, I’ve never heard a better answer.
In our Gospel today, we just heard Jesus use some surprising and shocking language too. He said, “If anyone comes to me without hating their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own life, they cannot be my disciple.” These are jarring words to our ears. Hate our father and mother? After all, one of the Commandment tells us to “Honor your mother and father.” Of course, Jesus is not instructing us to hate our families, rather, He’s trying to get us to wake up; He’s trying to shake us up so that we might embrace the full impact of His message of the Kingdom of God.
Our world is often obsessed with wealth and competition; it’s full of violence and war. We usually refer to this as the “real” world. And if someone were to suggest that instead of power, money and fame, we can live lives guided by peace, love, joy, compassion, and forgiveness, they would probably be called crazy. But, Jesus reminded us that the so-called “real” world is actually the illusion; it is phony and full of false hopes and promises. He calls us to throw off that illusion and instead be immersed in the Kingdom of God. His strategy? Well, in today’s passage, it is spiritual shock therapy. Jesus wants to shake us out of our complacency and into a whole new way of thinking, acting, and being. Jesus wants to remind us today that we cannot follow Him half way. Our faith and our discipleship is meant to be all or nothing. It is meant to be the most important thing in our life.
This is the point of His shocking words to us today. If we’re going to follow Jesus, He wants us to go with Him the whole way. We can’t stop at His preaching and miracles and leave Him when it comes to the Cross. We’ll never reach resurrection unless we’re along for the whole journey. We have to accept His way of seeing life and put that into practice in the way we live. Just as that woman on the Oprah show understood, Jesus and His Gospel message have to be the top priority in our lives. And when Jesus comes first, everything else falls into place.
So rather than judging our lives by the standards of our world – standards that are concerned with mere superficial trivialities, we need to judge our lives by the level of love and service offered to God through our relationships with those around us. What counts is not how we are looked at by others but the degree of care and compassion with which we look at them, and especially the most marginalized people in our midst.
That is the meaning of the two parables Jesus gives today. “Great crowds” were following Jesus with enthusiasm but were they ready for His message? Did they realize what it really meant to follow Him? If not, they are like the king who goes out to war totally unprepared. They are like a man who started to build a tower and ran out of funds or material. They become inauthentic. If we try to walk with Jesus without being ready to commit; we too will miss the joy and happiness of the totally fulfilled life that Jesus is offering us.
Jesus tells us today that to be His disciple is to make every other thing in life second to Him. He means that on the list of our goals and priorities in life, attaining the kingdom of God must come first and then everything else will follow. He, and only He, is the way, the truth and the life. Following Jesus is much harder than we may have thought at first. The Good News is that Jesus recognizes this and still invites us on this journey with Him.
St. Francis of Assisi often said very simply, “Jesus, You are enough for me.” Let us make his words our own, and let us know that we need to love God first and more than anything else in our lives.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 1, 2019:
Very soon after his election, Pope Francis held a press conference with the media and, of course, they immediately asked him why he had chosen the name Francis – after all, in the more than 2,000 years of the Church, it is a name no one has ever chosen before. The Pope answered, “Some people wanted to know why I wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend. When the votes reached two thirds, there was applause, because that meant a Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and leaned in and said to me: ‘Don't forget the poor!’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then, I thought of all the wars in the world. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and is for the poor!”
I couldn’t help but think of this story from the very beginning of this papacy because I think it speaks to what Jesus is telling us today in the Gospel. We heard Jesus say, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
We know that the poor were the most beloved of Jesus. The Beatitudes are themselves a hymn of praise for the poor. Just look who are listed among the blessed by God. Blessed are you: who are poor, who are hungry, who are meek, who are persecuted – it is to them that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Jesus loved the poor and spent most of His time among them. They held a special place in His heart. And Pope Francis reminds us that love for the poor is meant to be at the heart of our call too. He reminds us that we are most perfectly and beautifully and clearly Church when we are serving these most beloved of Jesus – the poor.
Our Christian message-in-action is so pure when we serve the poor, isn’t it? Just think of all the times that we explain Catholic doctrine – whether it’s the theology of the Eucharist or Confession – these are complex and deep and abiding mysteries that are not easily explained or understood. But, when we feed the hungry in a soup kitchen, does that require explanation? When we house the homeless, does anyone miss the faith connection? When we give warm coats and blankets to the needy in the cold winter, do we need to write a doctrinal thesis? No, our faith and its witness is pure and powerful when we love the poor and when we show that love for the poor in what we do. This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks of wanting “a church that is poor and for the poor.” A Church that is poor and is for the poor is pure in its intent, its mission and its witness. It is also at that moment that it is attractive to those on the outside of the Church. When they see this Christian love-in-action, they become curious about this faith that inspires us to act in this counter-cultural way.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that wants to say that the poverty around us is always someone else’s problem. Our society wants to blame the homeless, the hungry, the drug addict, and the refugee. My friends, we are called to let our faith inspire in us the same kind of love for those who are in need in our world. To develop mercy in our hearts so that when we see someone in need on the margins of our society, we don’t fall into the trap of our culture to blame the poor for their poverty, but instead to look on them as precious in the sight of God; beloved in the eyes of Jesus; and so beloved in our eyes as well. And more importantly, we need to see them as our brothers and sisters who we seek out with joy and mercy to help in their need. When we love the poor, we do more than simply make their difficult their lives better, it is more than mere philanthropy. When we love the poor, we are loving God; when we reach out to the poor, we are encountering God; when we find the poor in our midst, we discover God in our midst. “What you did for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did for Me.”
A few years ago, for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Pope reflected on the moment when Jesus invited Thomas to touch His wounds. He said, “The path to our encounter with Jesus are his wounds. There is no other. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded sister or brother, because they are hungry or thirsty, because they are naked or humiliated, because they are a slave, or in jail, or in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed."
Let us allow our discovery of God here at Mass – especially as we discover Him truly present in the Eucharist today – let this be the inspiration that leads us to discover Him once again outside of this church, in all the people we meet, but especially in the poor and those in need. Truly then, we are living as daughters and sons of God. Truly, if we love to poor and reach them in their need, this will change everything for us too.
“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 25, 2019:
I saw one of my favorite commercials on TV this week. It is a Staples commercial that shows an overjoyed Dad dancing behind a shopping cart around the store with two dejected-looking children behind him. The music playing in the background, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And the Dad screams gleefully, “They’re going back!!” I know that this is for many a conflicted time of year – for parents, rejoicing; for teachers and kids, dread – but I think today we can learn something valuable from it in terms of our faith.
Summer really is a wonderful time of year. Everything seems to move at a different pace. We put more emphasis on being with family and friends; on relaxing and enjoying the outdoors, good food, one another. We go to cookouts, baseball games, summer camp, the beach; we have vacation time, and so on. And especially as the days of summer begin to wane, we really want all of it to go on forever. But, the reality is that we know we must return to the orderliness, the discipline, the work of the school year. There’s just no quick or easy way around it. Despite the fact that many of us perhaps don’t want to go to school, or work, or back to the regular pace of life, we have to. We must return to gain knowledge, to learn how to live and interact in our society, to gain and perfect the skills we need in life; to earn the money we need to enjoy the pace of summer. We want summer to last forever, but eventually we have to return to regular life.
There is a similarly conflicted reality in what Jesus is telling his followers in today’s Gospel. Someone asks him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” This is not the answer they were looking for; I’m sure it’s not the answer we wanted to hear either. We would like Jesus to tell us, “Don’t worry, be happy. Do what you want, everyone is saved!”
But, I think rather than the wrong answer, the real problem here is that the man in our Gospel isn’t asking the right question. He asks, “Will only a few be saved?” when what he really should have asked was, “Lord, how can I be saved?” Rather than a mere curiosity about others being saved, we need to be asking, “What do I need to do to be saved? How can I serve God better in my life today, right now? How can I reach out and be the kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving presence God has called me to be?”
Too often, we turn our faith into a matter of comparison. In other words, as long as there is someone else worse than me, then somehow I’m okay. But, our faith in Jesus isn’t comparative, it is personal. It is a one-on-one relationship with the very means of our salvation – Jesus Himself. Jesus shows us in Word and Sacrament everything we need to know for our salvation. The gate is indeed narrow and we have to do the hard work to be ready to walk through it. But the gate is not a mystery; it is not hidden. Jesus points us to the gate for our salvation; and the gate is open and it is the right size for each of us to walk through. All we have to do is follow the person ahead of us through that gate; and that person is Jesus.
We can feel sometimes like those who were turned away who said, “But, we ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” We might feel the same way, “Lord, we have eaten Your Body and we drank of Your Blood and You taught in our Church. Isn’t this enough?”
To this Jesus says: “Eating and drinking beside Me is not the same as eating and drinking with Me. You can be near Me and not a part of Me. You can hear Me without ever listening to Me. You can know Me and still not accept Me. You can like Me while never loving Me. You see, I am not the one that is locking you out. You are locking yourself out. I’m not closing the door on you. It is you who close the door on Me. Acknowledge Me, accept Me, love Me and then follow Me through the door that leads to My Kingdom.”
This is how we pass through the Narrow Gate – by allowing God to change us, to form us, and transform us. Remember, Jesus tells us, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” My friends, let us ask today, “What must I do to be saved?” And may God give each of us the strength to follow.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 19th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 11, 2019:
A priest walked into a bar and made an announcement. He said, “Anyone who wants to go to heaven, please stand up now." Everyone there stood up except for one man who continued to sip his drink at the bar. The priest said to him, “Sir, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?” The man looked up and said, “When I die? Yes. But, I thought you were gathering a group to go right now.”
We heard in our Gospel today, “You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." I have had the opportunity a few times to spend a month in Italy doing some work a Franciscan conference Assisi. It was a great experience, but also a great chance to experience Italian culture. One of the wonderful aspects of this culture is that Italians are known for their relaxed approach to life. For example, an afternoon siesta is a must, and they take the whole month of August off for vacation. Sounds pretty good. But, they are also fond of frequently responding “Domani” to many requests. Domani is the Italian word for “tomorrow.” So, can you help me today? Domani, come have some wine; domani, have some prosciutto; have a little pasta. It is a domani culture. In most ways this is admirable. It’s an approach that places family and friends and engaging the other first over the more mundane and tiresome aspects of life. But, as we are reminded today, there is one area of our life that we cannot take a domani approach and that is in our life of faith.
“At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." Today’s Gospel challenges when it comes to our faith life, not be people of tomorrow, but, instead, to be people who are filled with the love of God, who live lives dedicated to Christ, who are ready for his return - today.
There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – look busy.” My friends, if Jesus were to come today, right now, here during this Mass what would He find? Would He find in us a people who had prepared themselves for His return? Ready for His judgment? Or would He people who have said, Domani, tomorrow Lord; tomorrow I will get my relationship with You in order. Tomorrow I will work on my sins. Tomorrow I will say “I’m sorry”. Tomorrow I will right that wrong. I do love you Lord, and dedicate myself to You, but not today – tomorrow, domani.
“At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." Jesus is right, we do not know the day or the hour that He will return, but we do know the day and the hour that we can get ready – the day and the hour are right now. Jesus wants us to live completely and fully in His love; to be freed completely and fully from our sins through the gift and grace of Confession; to be filled with the power and holiness that comes through His Body and Blood. He wants us, quite simply and quite profoundly, to be the people that He created us to be. And, He wants us to be that today, not tomorrow. And all we have to do is choose it. Choose Christ. Choose holiness. Choose goodness and kindness and compassion.
Pope Francis said at World Youth Day in Poland, “I ask you: Are you looking for empty thrills in life, or do you want to feel a power that can give you a lasting sense of life and fulfillment? To find fulfillment, to gain new strength, there is a way. It is not a thing or an object, but a person, and he is alive. His name is Jesus Christ. All together, then, we ask the Lord: Launch us on the adventure of mercy! Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire. Launch us on the adventure of helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives. The Lord does not keep his distance, but is near and real. He is in our midst and he takes care of us.”
So my friends, today is the day for us all to cast off our fear, to cast off our lack of trust, to cast off whatever it is that has kept us up until this point from living fully and completely for God.
In fact, we do know the day and the hour of our faith. The day is today and the hour is now. Let us be the ones who are ready for the Savior’s return. Let us surrender our hearts and our lives to Him. Let us ‘put on Christ’ and live for God alone and our lives will be full and happy and holy and fruitful. Let us all be able to say: Jesus is coming, I am ready!
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 14, 2019:
As you know, we are once again into another long and drawn out election cycle, and now it seems like every other week there’s yet another candidates debate going on. This is what we have to look forward to for the next year and a half. But when we enter into these times, seeing all of these candidates always reminds me of some of the most famous political slogans and statements over the years. The best ones always get us to think of something bigger than ourselves. Slogans like, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” A number of years ago, I heard a speaker who was trying to motivate people to make a difference in the world. His words reminded me of these slogans. He said, “Instead of asking, ‘What do I want today?’ ask ‘How can I serve today?’ Instead of asking, ‘What can I get today?’ ask, ‘What can I give today?’ It’s no longer, ‘What’s in it for me?’ rather it’s, ‘How can I help?’” In our Gospel today, Jesus words sound something like a slogan – but one that is meant to make a real difference in our lives.
The shift from focus on the self to focus on others is at the heart of our Gospel message. We heard, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” A simplistic reading of this passage can lead us to the conclusion that if you are rich, Heaven will be difficult for you to enter; or if you are interested in living a comfortable life, having a nice car or house, then the Kingdom is far from you. But, I think this superficial reading of the text misses the bigger point that Jesus is making today.
Jesus, like that speaker I heard, is trying to lead us from ‘What can I get today?’ to ‘What can I give today?’ The question isn’t about whether or not possessions or wealth are good or bad, the question is what is our relationship to these things and how do they affect the way we relate to others, to the world, and to the most needy in our midst.
Things, of course, are nice and even necessary for life. But possessions can sometimes assume such an importance in our lives that they become obsessions. When we are so concerned about the things that we can have, that we no longer hear the urgent call of God, then we have got our priorities mixed up. Such is the man in today’s Gospel who asks Jesus to come and make his brother give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus isn’t against him having more wealth, nor is he against justice being done between him and his brother. But Jesus is disappointed that after listening to all His preaching, the man’s concern is still about his money. The very Words of Life were falling on deaf ears.
Jesus, fearing there could be more people in the crowd like this man, turns and says to them, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” To illustrate His point Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. Now when you read the parable you might ask, “What wrong did this man do?” Think about it. He did honest work on his farm and the land gave a bumper crop, so he decided do build larger storage so that he could live the rest of his life on Easy Street. Only he did not know that the rest of his life was less than a day. Jesus uses him to illustrate greed in its many forms. The man’s greed lies not in what he did, but in what he failed to do, just like we pray in the Confiteor, “forgive me for what I have failed to do.” Instead of using his material wealth for the good of the world, to do the things that God calls us to do – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc. – he used it to better only himself.
Pope Francis has talked about this same theme calling it the Cult of Money in our world. He has said, “It breaks my heart to say that today, finding a homeless person who has died of the cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals – that is news. But the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way. Today, if investments in banks fail, it is a ‘tragedy’ and people say 'what are we going to do?' but if people die of hunger, have nothing to eat or suffer from poor health, that's nothing. This is our crisis today. A Church that is poor and for the poor has to fight this mentality."
There is a quote that says, greed is “the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can, while we can, however we can, and then hold on to it hard.” The rich man in our Gospel – and many people in our world today - qualify as examples of this kind of greed. That’s why Jesus was so hard on them. That’s why the Holy Father, so often, speaks about this.
Today’s Gospel invites us to ask the fundamental questions that I began with: “‘How can I serve today?’ ‘What can I give today?’ ‘How can I help?’” Let us use those questions to help us respond in ways that make the world a better place. God calls us to realize that the most valuable possession in the world is faith in His Son; and He wants us to be rich in what matters to Him. God wants us to realize that the greatest thing we can do is to work every day – through the gifts of our time, talent and treasure – to make the world a better place; a more Christian place; a more caring, loving and compassionate place. That is the truest measure of success.
So, let us all pray today that we might become rich in the Words, in the Will and in the Way of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And let us ask: what will we give today?
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY OR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 4, 2019:
The parish bookkeeper was struggling one day to open the safe so she could count the weekend collection. She just could not remember the safe’s combination. After many tries, she finally asked the pastor for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. But, after the first two numbers he paused also struggling to remember the code. Then, he took a deep breath, looked up to Heaven and his lips began to move ever so silently. Then he looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the safe. The bookkeeper was amazed. “I'm in awe of your faith, Father. You have to teach me that prayer,” she said. “Oh, that wasn’t prayer,” he said. “The combination is written on the ceiling.”
Our Gospel today invite us to reflect upon the power of prayer in our lives. The disciples make the most import request that we can make in the spiritual life: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” This is a question we’ve all asked at one point or another. Everyone knows that we should be people of prayer, but understanding how to pray isn’t always easy.
Sometimes we think that prayer is about finding the right formula – if we say the correct words in the correct way, we’ll get what we’re looking for. Perhaps if we pray the right novena on the right days, God will answer us. Now, I’m not looking for a show of hands, but just think for a moment, how many of us have prayed the following types of prayers before:
These are what we call prayers of desperation, or 911 Prayers. As though all prayer consisted of were those moments when we pick up the God phone, dial 911, and help is on the way. Now, this isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be calling on God for help in tough times. He should always be our first call. The problem with these prayers is that they view prayer as Divine Bargaining – God, You do this and I’ll do that. In other words, the question behind them is what do I have to give (or do, or say) to get the thing I want.
But, Jesus reminds us today that prayer is not about a bargain; it is always about relationship. Prayer is not merely an event that responds to certain situations in our lives, it has to be our way of life. This is what St. Paul is talking about in First Thessalonians when he tells us to “be unceasing in prayer.” He means, we should lead lives that themselves become prayer.
So prayer is relationship. But, what kind of relationship? Well, notice how Jesus begins and ends what He has to say about prayer in today’s Gospel. He begins by saying, “When you pray, say: ‘Father’“ and He ends with the words, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father.” Jesus sandwiches everything He has to say about prayer in the language of a relationship between child and father, between child and parent. Prayer is a family affair based on a relationship of familiarity and love, of tenderness and intimacy – not on power, authority, or bargaining.
One way to think about this relationship is to think of the word “FAMILY” as an acronym standing for: Forget About Me, I Love You in opposition to a world that tells us to Forget about YOU, I Love ME! The life of prayerful relationship cares about God first, then others before ourselves. So, our prayer doesn’t begin with asking God to do things for us in exchange for other things. It begins with getting to know a God who loves us so deeply and so intimately that He wants us to think of Him as our Father. Jesus understood this so well that He called God “Abba,” a title best translated as “Daddy.” When someone prays before their Abba, it isn’t about correct formulas; it is only about correct hearts. Hearts that understand family: forget about me, I love you.
You see, when we nurture our relationship with God through prayer, He knows our needs just like we know the needs of the people closest to us before they ever say them. He knows our hearts when we share our hearts with Him each and every day and so He can respond to what we need because we have been with Him in our moments of prayer as a Father or Mother is with their child. Prayer is powerful and can move mountains – but the power of prayer comes from its regularity, its depth of relationship. Anyone can have powerful results in prayer, but they must nurture a daily relationship with God to get there.
Let us ask with the disciples today, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” I encourage everyone to do a few simple things. Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to say, “Abba, Father, I love you. I know that there is nothing that can happen today that you and I can’t handle together.” In the middle of the day, say, “God, I’m thinking of you. Be with me today.” At the end of the day, simply say, “God, thank you for gift and blessings of this day. I’m sorry for all the things I may have done wrong. I ask your forgiveness and strength to do better tomorrow.” It really is that easy! “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 16th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 21, 2019:
"Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things...Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her." This familiar line from Luke’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed has always bothered me a bit. It bothers me because in the minds of so many scholars and others over the centuries, this moment has become the defining moment in the life of St. Martha.
You see, I have a bit of a soft spot for St. Martha. I think it comes from being a well-named Thomas. Being a “Thomas” has always made me sensitive to the unfair treatment that Thomas the Apostle gets. For all eternity, Thomas has been defined by one single moment in his life and has since been known as Doubting Thomas. But, as I have mentioned before, he should really be called Faithful Thomas. His so-called doubt comes from the fact that he questions his fellow Apostles, not Jesus. If Jesus had truly appeared to them, then why are they still fearful, locked into the upper room? If Jesus had really appeared, why hadn’t they done what He asked? If Thomas doubted, he doubted them. But, once Jesus appears to Thomas, he utters one of the most beautiful statements of faith in all of Scripture: “My Lord and my God!” And tradition tells us that He took up the charge that Jesus gave him with such great fervor that he would travel as far as India to spread the Good News and eventually die a martyr’s death. This is Thomas the Faithful!
The same kind of thing happens in the life of Martha. Today’s brief passage gives us two seemingly opposed positions – Martha who is busy serving, and Mary who sits at the feat of Jesus and listens. We come away from this passage feeling as though Mary is right, and Martha is wrong; that Mary is holy, and Martha is worldly. Sadly, this has often been the defining moment of this Martha’s life too. Martha is a worrier, consumed with accomplishing tasks, not attuned to spiritual things like her sister.
Of course, the point that Jesus is making is how important it is for us to step aside from the busyness of our lives to just sit and listen to the Lord; to consciously take that time to be in God’s presence so that God can speak His word in the depths of our hearts, so that He can remind us of how precious we are in His sight. Martha of course, knows this too. In fact, just as we know doubting was not the end of the story for Thomas, and he would have his own redeeming moment and proclamation of faith, the same is true for Martha. When her brother Lazarus died, she welcomed Jesus who had come to mourn with her and Mary at the loss of their brother, and His friend. And, in that heavy moment of grief, sadness, perhaps even questioning how this happened, Martha, like Thomas, makes a great proclamation of faith. She says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ. The One who has come into the world.” Again, one of the greatest proclamations of faith in the Bible.
For us, the Bible is really two stories. First it is God’s story – the story that tells us who God is, how He works, the depths to which He loves us. But, it is also our story – it tells us who we are, what we can be like, and how we can grow in holiness and closeness to our God. And it often tells us all of this through the lives and experiences of people in the Bible; people we can connect with. And this is why I love Martha, and Thomas, so much. They are like us. We connect with these two saints because we can see something of ourselves in them. Like Thomas, we can sometimes be filled with doubt and uncertainty. And like Martha, we can sometimes spend more time doing the things that keep us busy, rather than slowing down and taking the time to gather our resources, renew our spirits, rest our bodies, and commune with our God. And like them both, perhaps we’ve experienced moments in our life when others want to define us by a single mistake, or a single moment.
But, if we can be like Martha and Thomas in their less-than-perfect moments, then perhaps we can be like them too in their moments of great faith. Thomas and Martha are two very normal, human people. They are both full of all of the same emotions, reactions, and weakness that we all struggle with from time to time. And yet, they also possess the potential for tremendous holiness and grace. They have within them the ability to overcome those moments and allow God’s grace and holiness to shine through their lives in profound ways. And, my friends, the same is true for you and for me. No single moment, no failure, no sin, can ever define our lives or who we are because we are defined by God’s grace and its power to overcome anything in our lives. We are defined by our call to holiness.
What changed everything for both Martha and Thomas; what helped them overcome their normal human weakness, was an encounter with Jesus. In His presence, in His eyes, they gained a strength that brought out incredible holiness for all the world to see. Today, let the same be true for you and me. Today, we encounter our living God in His holy Word proclaimed. Today, before our very eyes, mere bread and wine will be transformed into His True and Abiding Presence in our midst. As we once again receive that Sacred Presence in the Eucharist, let our encounter with Jesus strengthen us, change us, transform us into the holiness that God calls forth from all those who follow Him. As we go forth from this place, let us say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Let us say with Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the One who has come into the world.”
Let us, like them, live the saintly lives we have all been called to.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 15th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 14, 2019:
If you’re like me and millions-upon-millions of other people of a certain age, you grew up each day listening to Mr. Fred Rogers sing a little song that went something like this, “It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” Every day, Mr. Rogers would invite his viewers to please be his neighbor as he took us to the land of Make-Believe or taught lessons on how to be peaceful people or how to deal with difficult situations or just to meet the many different people in the neighborhood. Everyone was a neighbor in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
We know we live in difficult times. We’re flooded with images that haunt us – people displaced by the destruction of natural disasters, images of adults and children in cages, the scourge of the opioid epidemic, the endless numbers of mass shootings throughout our country (there have been more than 250 this year already). With the constant barrage of bad news that fills the newspapers and airwaves, we can begin to believe that violence, death and killing are out of control in our midst. We live in an extraordinary time of terror, of violence, of division and polarization and fear. And to all of that our God says to us over and over again – in fact more than 300 times in the Bible – “Do not be afraid.” Love conquers all.
And this is why we daily turn back to God and His Holy Word for our guidance, our inspiration, and our hope. As always, our Scriptures today once again remind us of what God wants of us in the midst of so much anger. He wants us to remember that we are not at odds, we are not in conflict, but that we are all neighbors – even if, and especially if, we thought we were divided.
Jesus proclaim again to us today the Christian Golden Rule, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Nearly every religion and culture in the world has a Golden Rule in one form or another. In Judaism, they say, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” In Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Hinduism, “Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” And in Islam, “No one is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.”
When we look at the situation of our world and wonder what we can do, the answer lies in not adding our voice to the chorus of negativity in the world. Our response needs to be one of tenderness, kindness and compassion. Robert Kennedy, who also knew very violent times, said, “Each time we stand up for an ideal, or act to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, we sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Or more simply, won’t you be my neighbor?
Jesus proclamation of the Golden Rule insists that all humanity is really one big neighborhood – we are all connected. Jesus broke down the walls of division and the borders of prejudice and suspicion that humans have erected between “us” and “them” throughout time. To bring home this point He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This man regarded as an enemy by the people of Jesus’ time for no other reason than he is a Samaritan, is ironically the one who truly proves himself to be neighbor to the Jewish man in need. Thus to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus offers new and challenging answer to His hearers: Anyone and everyone is your neighbor – without exception – even the person you thought was your enemy.
In our own world today we need to be reminded that everyone is our neighbor – even the enemy; even the immigrant; even the person who is different than us; even the person we don’t like or who doesn’t like us. They are our neighbor and we must offer them mercy. We must overcome the tendency to think in terms of “us” and “them” and instead heed the command of Jesus to, “Go and do likewise” – to offer mercy, to treat everyone with respect, to be neighbor to the world.
The Christian understanding of “neighbor” has no borders or boundaries. Today we are called to identify and tear down all the walls we have erected between those who belong to us and those who don't belong to us. The Gospel today challenges us all to dismantle these walls. This way we work with Jesus to realize His dream of the world as a neighborhood without borders or boundaries.
As we gather today, we come to church for some comfort, we come to church for a measure of peace, we come to church to hear what word God has to speak to us. But, we also come to church to be sent back out. “Go and proclaim the Gospel,” “Go and glorify God by your life.” We come to be healed, strengthened, renewed and sent once again to be that peaceful presence in our world. Jesus, today, sends us to “go and do likewise” and to be neighbors to the world.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 14th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 7, 2019:
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.” When we hear this quote, we are usually quick to interpret in light of vocations to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life. That makes a lot of sense to us. After all, we know that fewer men and women are pursuing these ways of life in our times, and so the natural temptation is to preach today about the need for more men and women to be dedicated in service to God, humanity and the Church. And, this would be a valid way to understand this passage. We do need a renewed desire for people to pursue the ordained and consecrated life.
But, when Jesus said these words, of course, we did not have the structures of ordained and consecrated life as we do today. There were no Dominican Sisters of Hope, Sisters of Mercy, Jesuits or Franciscans when Jesus sent out the 72 disciples. So, who are these words directed to? And, of course, these words are directed to all of us – certainly to priests and religious – but the call to be “sent out” for the harvest, is the call Jesus gives to every single believer; every last one of us.
It reminds me of the old Baltimore Catechism. The Baltimore Catechism used illustrations to make a point about vocations. On one page there were two men side-by-side, one was dressed in an ordinary business suit, the other was a priest. The caption under the business man read, “This is good.” And under the priest, “But, this is better.” The next page had a woman in a dress with children at her side, and next to her was a religious sister, a nun. The captions again, under the Mom, “This is good,” and under the nun, “But, this is better.” I don’t think this is quite how Jesus would explain vocations. One is certainly not better than the other. The caption should have read, “These are both good, but they are different ways of serving God and the Church. Which one is God calling you to?” The danger of focusing only on the ordained and consecrated as those “called to the harvest” is that it let’s the rest of us off the hook. They’ll bring in the harvest, I don’t need to worry about that.
Jesus, then and now, intends to call each and every last one of us who believe in Him and in His message to be the laborers who spread His message around the world; no matter what it is that we do in life. What Jesus means when tells us, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few,” is that the world is full of people in need. Whether it is people in the third world or the homeless and drug addicted on our city streets, or even members of our own families – people are looking for help; looking for connection; looking for compassion; looking for God. The problem is that there are too few people willing to offer those things. All we have to do is turn on the TV to see how people respond to the need all around them. They too often respond with anger, with accusations, we prejudice, or the worst of all, with complete indifference. Never before has there been such a need for compassionate people – people like you and me – to step forward and help Jesus with the harvest.
A few years ago, Pope Francis reflected on the Gospel passage where St. Thomas the Apostle places his fingers in the wounds of Christ. Reflecting on that, the Pope said, "Jesus reveals Himself in His wounds and so the path to our encounter with Jesus are His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked because and is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. These are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus. We must caress the wounds of Jesus. We need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, literally. To enter into the wounds of Jesus all we have to do is go out onto the street. Let us have the courage to enter into the wounds of Jesus with tenderness and thus we will certainly have the grace to worship the living God.”
My friends, our Gospel today reminds us that it is the responsibility of us all – whether we are priests, deacons, religious, popes or any of the myriad of beautiful, wonderful Baptized members of the Body of Christ – we are all called; we all have that vocation to reach out to the world around us – especially the world in need; especially to touch Christ in His wounds. We all share the call the be the laborers in the field who bring in God’s harvest of goodness, holiness, and compassion. If we have the courage to do it, we will be changed for the better by it; because we will be changed to be more like Christ.
The Lord once again sends each of us today to proclaim the Kingdom of God; to live the Kingdom of God; to be the very Kingdom of God in the midst of our world; to encounter Christ through His wounds. It is the call – it is the vocation – of us all.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 13th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, June 30, 2019:
“Brothers and sister, for freedom Christ has set us free…You were called for freedom.” As our nation prepares to celebrate its Independence in just a few days, we could not have asked for better readings from Scripture. Our nation’s independence of course focusses our attention on the great gift of freedom that we enjoy in the United States. The freedom so bravely declared in that Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the freedom that we try to continue to preserve today. At this time of year, I always take a few moments to read the Declaration of Independence slowly, word for word. How can you not be moved by words like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
How perfect then that today we have a powerful reflection on freedom from St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians. But, St. Paul offers an understanding of freedom more comprehensive, profound and challenging than any Fourth of July orator is likely to provide. As we heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.” And this is where things get interesting.
According to St. Paul, through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been freed from something and for something – we have been freed from the dominion of sin, death and the flesh, and freed for life in the Spirit. This is the type of freedom that is worth something; this is the type of freedom that makes life worth living.
Too often, we define freedom very narrowly. Freedom means I can do what I want; or anything goes. Freedom in this way is a freedom from. We are free from things like oppression, or want, or hunger, or poverty, or even violence or other terrible things. And while this is certainly a good thing, it really doesn’t help us discover who we are, what we are called to, what we can be. Through Christ, we have all been made free. St. Paul asks us today, “What are we doing with that freedom?” He reminds us that through our Baptism, in Christ, the freedom that He won for us on the cross is not merely a freedom from some sort of oppression, but more powerfully it is a freedom for the world. It is a freedom that calls us to be something great.
It reminds me of when I took my vows as a religious – vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We had an older friar who used to like to describe them this way: He would says, the vows are No Money, No Honey, No Say. He was, of course, joking, but this is a view that sees religious vows only as restrictions, when in reality, in these vows – much like marriage vows – we see exactly the kind of freedom for Christ that St. Paul envisions. In the vow of poverty, we see the freedom to not be concerned with high paying jobs, acquiring material goods, power, or status and instead be completely free to be where Jesus and the Church needs us. In the vow of chastity, we see the freedom that instead of being a loving presence to one spouse, we embrace the freedom to be God’s loving presence to all of His people. And in the vow of obedience, we become free to not be preoccupied with our own will and our own desires, but to move with the freedom of the wind in the ways that God calls us through the Church.
While the way we live out these vows is particular to someone who is a religious or a priest, the idea and the freedom behind them is for everyone. St. Paul said, “Stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” We see how heavy and pervasive this yoke of slavery is in our world today. How many people are yoked so strongly to their desire to make money and acquire material that they ignore their fundamental relationship with God and even with their own families? How many people are yoked so strongly to the damaging culture of today that they worship that and deny the beauty and sanctity of every created person? How many people today are yoked so strongly to their own will, their own way that they trample right over those in front of them through lies, deceit, gossip and control? God has given us freedom. Nothing can take that away. But, now that we are free from things, what will we be free for? Let us be free to love radically, forgive completely, show compassion constantly, reach out to our neighbor faithfully, welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger joyfully. These are the things that will change not only our lives, but will make our world the kind of place worthy of the freedom we have been gifted.
As we mark our nation’s freedom this week, let us be reminded that God is calling us to something greater – the most radical freedom ever seen in this world. “For freedom Christ set us free…you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters…serve one another through love.”
You were called for freedom. Do you want to be free?
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF PENTECOST, June 9, 2019:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That, of course, is a line from one of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century – the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It is an incredible speech; and was one that alerted the world that change was in the air; there was a generational shift. Kennedy stated boldly, “Let the word go forth… that the torch had been passed to a new generation.”
Today, on this Pentecost Sunday, those five words could also sum up the meaning of today’s great feast: Let the Word go forth. In the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets of Jerusalem, they had one purpose in mind: to let the Word of God go forth. And it did. The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Spain and even, eventually, in succeeding centuries, right here to America, right here to Fall River.
What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the earth. The word has gone forth in every language and is felt and understood in the hearts of billions-upon-billions of people. And it all began on this day we celebrate, Pentecost, often called the birthday of the Church.
Birthday is an appropriate image for Pentecost – especially when we look at it in the bigger Scriptural picture. The word “Pentecost”, means 50th and was for the Jewish people a celebration that took place 50 days after the Passover. For them, this was a day to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. There, what were different tribes entered into a covenant with God and with one another and became the People of God. Pentecost celebrated the birth of this new people. We know that the Holy Spirit gives birth to God’s presence in amazing ways. It is through a different kind of Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit descended on Mary – that Jesus was born into our world. And it is through this Pentecost – the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary and the disciples huddled and afraid in that upper room – that the Body of Christ is once again born into the world; this time as the Church. We, too, are part of that miracle. We too are called to continue to bring forth the same Body of Christ into our world today.
It is said that the Church doesn’t have a mission, but that the Mission has a Church. Jesus didn’t come to give us an institution or an organization. Instead, Jesus gave us a mission, “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you;” or in the words of JFK, to “let the word go forth.” Just as Jesus came to reveal God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and joy to us, we are to continue that Revelation, we are commissioned to spread that same Good News to everyone we encounter.
Just as Jesus came to show us how to live, we are called to be the example of Christian love to our brothers and sisters. Just as Jesus was rooted in Scripture, we are called to do the same. Just as Jesus reached out to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned – we are called to reach out to those in most need in our world today. In short, we are called to be that presence of Christ, the Body of Christ, in the world today. The Holy Spirit descended upon Mary and God was born in our world; the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered disciples and the Church was born. Today, the Holy Spirit descends upon the bread and wine on our altar, and the Presence of Christ will be born in them; and, today, the Holy Spirit will come upon each of us in this Holy Mass and will be born within us once again – all in he hopes that we will give birth to that Presence of God outside of the walls of this church.
The gift of the Holy Spirit today is a strong reminder to us that God is still right here, in our midst; that God is still truly present. We have not been abandoned by our God, rather, He still dwells among us; He dwells in us, God dwells through us. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us makes good the promise of Jesus, “Know that I am with you always until the end of the world.”
And so as the Holy Spirit of God once again descends upon us in this Mass; upon the Church in this Pentecost – let the word go forth that we will be the people who love and praise our God; let the word go forth that we will be members of His Church going from this place to be His presence of love and joy and peace; that we will go forth sharing His kindness and goodness and gentleness. That we will go forth to be the gentle, forgiving and compassionate presence of God in our world.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful. Enkindle in us the fire of Your love.” And let the Word go forth.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER, June 2, 2019:
Going through my desk earlier this week, I came across a prayer card that had belonged to my Aunt Pat. Aunt Pat was my Dad’s oldest sister and she passed away a number of years ago. The night before her funeral, her daughters, my cousins, gave me this prayer card, which they had found in her well-worn Bible. The card contained a well-known poem often read at funeral’s called “Safely Home.” But, in the margins my Aunt had handwritten two notes. One said simply, “Please read this at my funeral.” But on the other side she wrote, “My last prayer is that you all get right with God, so I’ll see you all again.” Aunt Pat, especially as she was nearing her own death, had a mind and a heart that was fixed firmly on Heaven – and she wanted the same for everyone she loved.
Now, while I would bet that we all want to get to Heaven, I’d bet we don’t think about it every day. Normally, our attention is focused on the things in front of us – the concerns of work, or family; the challenges or joys that we experience in relationships; the things happening in the world like the endless negativity on cable news; or the challenges of homelessness, or poverty, or violence. There are so many things that keep our eyes focused right here where we are, instead of what lies above.
But, Jesus came to earth for one amazing reason – to show us the way to Heaven, or as we’ll pray in our Eucharistic Prayer today, “He ascended, that we might be confident in following where He has gone.” Easter and the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, are all about reminding us of this eternal reality; this focus and purpose for our lives. Heaven is our goal; Heaven is the destination of our lives. So, how important it is for us to pick our heads up from the daily cares and be focused on our heavenly home.
I think there’s also another reason we don’t give much thought to Heaven: because picturing eternal life is difficult. This is where Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are helpful. He said, “As you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us…I wish that where I am they also may be with me.”
We all know that the great joy in life is so clear in the loving relationships we enjoy. What would all of the most beautiful things in the world be – the wonders of nature, the joy of children and family, beautiful works of art, even nice homes and cool cars – what would all of these be without others to share them with? Loving relationships make life enjoyable and meaningful. Jesus is telling us that Heaven is the ultimate, perfect relationship of love and union with God. And it will last for all time because God and His love are infinite.
You are probably familiar with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis was a strong Christian, and in Narnia has a beautiful way of explaining the reality of our Heavenly relationship with God. Narnia tells the story of English school children who find their way into another world where they have many adventures and go on special quests to defeat the forces of evil. All the children love Narnia, and their adventures there; and are always sorry to have to go back home at the end of each adventure.
At the end of the last book, however, it turns out that they don’t have to go back. They are permitted to stay in “Aslan’s Country” forever. Lewis describes what their lives were like from that moment on. He writes, “For the children, the end was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the title and the cover page. Now at last, they were beginning Chapter One of the great story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Lewis explains that compared to life in Heaven, absolutely everything that had come before, all the amazing adventures and thrilling experiences, both in this world and in Narnia, were nothing more than a hint; barely a faint idea of how wonderful the rest of the chapters were. And life in Aslan’s Country was always getting better and better, like a book with an endless amount of chapters, each one better than the last.
My friends, this is the eternal life that Jesus promises us – an everlasting adventure that only gets better and better. One of the worse things we can do is to not think about Heaven enough. After all, the less focused we are on our destination, the more likely we’ll be to make a wrong turn along the way. Imagine a baseball player who never thought about the game; an actor who never thought about the performance; a writer who never thought about the story. A Christian who never thinks about Heaven is equally absurd.
Let us keep our eyes on the prize because where Jesus has gone, we hope to follow. Where Mary has gone, where countless saints have gone, where my Aunt Pat has gone – we all hope to follow. As St. Bernadette Soubirous put it: “Let us work for Heaven: all the rest is nothing.”
My friends, St. Bernadette and my Aunt Pat had it right: let us get ourselves right with God so that in the glory and complete and perfect joy that is Heaven, we will see each other again. Let us work for Heaven: all the rest is nothing.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD, May 29, 2019:
There is such a beautiful symmetry in our celebration today of the Ascension of Jesus. As we gather in this Church today, it has been 40 days since we celebrated the Easter Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We know that God does great things in 40s. The world was renewed through the 40 days of the flood. God’s Chosen People were prepared to enter the Promised Land through 40 years in the desert. Jesus Himself spent 40 days in the desert before beginning His public ministry. We just spent 40 days of Lent preparing for Easter and now today, 40 days later, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. As a side note, is it just me or do the 40 days of Lent feel so much longer than the 40 days from Easter to today?
Jesus appeared to His disciples for 40 days after rising from the dead. Forty days of teaching them, 40 days of being with them, and now He has returned to be seated at the right hand of His Father. And because Jesus likes to spoil us there is still more to come; 10 more days of the Easter season; 10 more days to sit and pray with the wonder of Resurrection; 10 days to ready ourselves to celebrate the arrival of Christ’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost which will then bring our Easter season to a close.
Let me say a word about ascension. In the Church year, we celebrate two feasts that sound similar – the Ascension of the Lord, and in August the Assumption of Mary, when she returned bodily to Heaven. So, what’s the difference between Ascension and Assumption? Well, it all comes down to who does the heavy lifting. Since Jesus is God, He does not need to be taken up – or assumed – into Heaven. He has the power to do this on His own, so under His own power, He simply ascends to Heaven. Mary of course, is not God, and does not have that power to ascend on her own. Someone else must bring her to Heaven and so God assumes her body and soul into Heaven. The same activity, but a different active party. But, they both point to the same reality – that we are all destined for Heaven; that Heaven is our truest home; that when we are saved, when we achieve the Kingdom that God has prepared, we will all be re-united in Heaven.
There is a story about the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton. After his conversion to Catholicism, a friend of his asked a simple question, “Now that you are a Catholic, what do you want to be?” Merton said simply, “I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” His friend said, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint!” Merton said incredulously, “How do you expect me to become a saint?!” His friend responded, “By wanting to. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don't you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
My friends, we don’t gather here to simply commemorate Jesus journey to the Father. We gather tonight in anticipation of our own sainthood. In one of his last statements before retirement, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us of just this. He said, “You were made for greatness!” Pope Francis has also picked up the theme, saying, “Do not be content to live a mediocre Christian life: walk with determination along the path of holiness.” If we believe all that we have heard these last 40 plus days – the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus – if we believe that He did those things for us then we must also believe that just as He returned to the Father in Heaven, we will too. And if we believe that we will return to Heaven; then we believe that God desires to make us saints because that is all that a saint is – someone who’s worthy of life in Heaven. Let us desire to be saints!
Jesus shows us what is possible if we live in His love, live in His ways. He gives us a command, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” It is as simple as that. Our mission is to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone. We’re called to remember our commission; we’re called to be renewed in that mission today; to evaluate our lives in the light of that mission. After all, that is the only criteria for a successful life that matters. It doesn’t matter how much money we make or things we accrue. God’s only question will be how have you loved? How have you lived the Gospel, preached the Gospel in word and in deed? Have you desired to be a saint? Let us walk with determination on the path of holiness so that where Jesus has gone, we too may follow.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 26, 2019:
There was a man who wanted to tell soldiers on a military base about Christ's love for them. But, he was prohibited from going on the base to spread his message. So instead, he came up with a creative solution. He had several thousand hand mirrors delivered as gifts to the soldiers. On the back, was the message from John 3.16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” A message below that text read, “If you wish to see whom God loves, turn to the other side.”
In our Gospel today, Jesus also gives us a mirror of sorts to remind us of His love for each us. As Jesus nears the events that will lead to His death on the Cross and Resurrection, He reminds us that He will never leave us alone. Instead, He will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will always be by our side. Jesus says these words in the sermon that we find in John’s Gospel during the Last Supper. He announced His impending departure and this left the disciples nervous, anxious, even afraid. But, Jesus made sure they knew that what He had begun in them would continue – through this gift of His Holy Spirit.
And He gives a specific name to the Holy Spirit. He tells them He will send “The Advocate.” This names comes to us from the Greek, Paraclete which literally describes someone who is called to stand beside a client; what we would think of as an attorney. But this Advocate is much more than an attorney. Probably the best word that we use today that captures the meaning is “coach.” The Advocate is our coach, always by our side, to instruct and correct us when we make mistakes, to encourage and motivate us when we feel down, to challenge and inspire us to be the best we can be, to defend us and fight for us when the world is unfair. In short, the Advocate is for us what Jesus was for the disciples.
Why do we need an Advocate? For the same reason that athletes and sports people need coaches. No matter how good they are, athletes always need coaches. Even Dustin Pedroia, JD Martinez, and Mookie Betts – all need a coach to help them be the best players they can be. The same is true for us. Left on our own, we are prone to mistakes and errors. Without God we can do nothing. We need an Advocate who brings out the best in us, and keeps us on the path that God wants us to be on.
In the 5th century, there was a British thinker named Pelagius who taught that human beings have the ability to fulfill God's commands all by themselves. The church condemned his teaching as heresy, insisting that we always need God's grace in order to fulfill His will. Pelagianism is the belief that we can fulfill our destiny all by ourselves, and that we don’t need the grace of God that comes through faith, prayer, the sacraments, or the church. It’s obvious today that Pelagnianism isn’t relegated to the 5th century. It’s alive and well today. Many people today are Pelagians without even knowing it. Too many people today think they can live their lives without God, without the sacraments, without the church. Pope Francis addressed this last summer. He said, “Prevalent in the church are many new forms of Pelagianism. There is no room for God and God’s grace in this framework. Salvation and holiness get reduced to our own power, success, and action.”
Jesus reminds us that we stand in constant need of divine help. We all need the divine Helper, the Holy Spirit who stands always by our side, the Advocate. We receive this all-important Advocate by striving to live according to the law of Christ, as He said today, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our dwelling with them.” After the Ascension of Our Lord, the disciples “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” retired to the upper room to wait and pray for the promised Holy Spirit. We cannot do better than follow their example. We must do as they did and invite this Advocate into our lives. The Holy Spirit will not enter uninvited. He waits for an invitation. But, once invited, He will lead us into truth. He guarantees we are God's children. He helps us pray. He offers us hope. He empowers us to help other believers. He aids us to be like Him. He gives us spiritual strength.
Pope Francis said, “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” God wants us to be saints, and He sends us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to lead us and guide us and inspire us on that journey to holiness.
A poet sums up the Spirit well: “Eternally the Holy Spirit is love between the Father and the Son but historically the Holy Spirit is love between God and the world.” Come, Holy Spirit, the Advocate, into our lives and help us to be saints!
May the Lord give you peace.
HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 19, 2019:
Consider this statement, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This is a quote by Dorothy Day, the holy woman who was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who lived a life dedicated to reaching out to those whom society had cast off. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Or as Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” Let those words ruminate as we unpack today’s readings.
As much as Easter is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season also focuses our attention on another central figure, St. Paul and the life-changing effect of his encounter with the Resurrected Christ. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he established are read most Sundays throughout the year.
I think that the church gives us Paul during the Easter season as a point of connection between the great events we recall from so long ago and our own life here today. In other words, we are Paul. We relate to him in his struggles, in his doubt, even in his disbelief. And, if we can relate to him in those moments, then we can perhaps also relate to him in his conversion; we can relate to him in his zeal to grow in faith, and to share that faith with anyone he encountered. Our life of faith, after all, is not about a life of perfect adherence from womb to tomb. God knows that we often struggle with our faith; struggle with our practice; struggle to maintain God’s place in our life. We are in need of constant resurrection, newness, constant change, constant return. And Paul reminds us that this is okay. That no matter how far away we sometimes feel from God, we can always return. There is no place that is too far from God for us.
When we encounter St. Paul in Acts, he was still a fresh convert to the faith and new at being a Christian. Previously, he was the chief persecutor of these new Christians. Elsewhere Acts tells us that Paul had been “breathing murderous threats” against the followers of Jesus. The early Christian community knew who this guy was and what he did. Nobody trusted him. They even feared him. That brings us back to Dorothy Day, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
This very mean Paul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, of course, he had a direct encounter with the Risen Jesus, so stunning that we’re told that the encounter knocked Paul to the ground. But, it wasn’t just that moment that changed everything. There was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more in him. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul and his conversion. Today’s reading shows them together proclaiming the good news. Without Barnabas, there would not be a St. Paul. After Paul’s conversion, Barnabas became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. Barnabas embraced this man everyone else feared because he knew with God all things would be possible. Barnabas personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Years later, when Paul wrote his famous passage to the Corinthians about love – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I think he was really talking about this kind of love. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Paul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner, a persecutor, even a Christian-hunter, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul who through this encouragement grew into the Saint Paul we revere.
To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too, it can raise us every day – right out of whatever weighs us down.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into holiness and a saintly life. “As I have loved you, so you should also love one another.”
My friends, let us pray today that we too might be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else, for those who are far off, for those who no one else seems to love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement making our way to Heaven and bringing everyone else along with us.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER (GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY), May 12, 2019:
As a teenager, I was not terribly strong in my faith. In fact, I had only the merest spark of faith. A well-named Doubting Thomas, I simply did not yet know the Lord in any real or personal sense. But, then in my early 20s, I felt drawn for the first time in my life to the Mass and specifically to the Eucharist. And when I began going to Mass, I started to have powerful experiences of God’s true presence there. The Mass began to speak to me in ways it never had before. I felt the presence of Jesus that I had never felt before. I remember receiving the Eucharist at one of these Masses and in a spiritual sense this was my first Communion because it was the first time that I truly believed and knew in my heart that this was Jesus; and that He was real. And when I met Him personally, for the first time, in that Eucharist, He began to show me who He wanted me to be. It was through meeting Jesus in the Eucharist that I discovered my vocation, my calling, my place in God’s Kingdom.
“I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus today tells us something so essential about who He is and about our relationship with Him. Jesus shows us in this simple image that He does not want to interact with us in a hierarchical way – top down; but He wants to interact with us in a relational way, in an intimate way. As Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel, “Yet not one of you has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” God loves us specifically, personally, individually, intimately. Jesus reminds us that what He wants more than anything is to know us, and that we intimately know Him.
When Jesus uses this image of the Shepherd, it is an image the people of His time would understand well. In Jesus’ time, there were basically two kinds of shepherds. First, there was the hired hand for whom keeping the sheep was just a job. He moved from flock to flock depending on the conditions of service and he would not risk his life for them in a dangerous situation. Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same sheep all his life. He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and knows everything about each of his sheep. He knows which ones are strong, which are weak; which ones might stray from the flock and would keep an eye on them. When in danger, he would risk his life to defend his sheep.
Jesus tells us that this is the kind of shepherd He is. He knows each one of us individually. He knows the cares and concerns of our lives. He knows our needs. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows what we can be. And this is where our personal stories intersect with the Good Shepherd, and with what we gather for here today – this Eucharist. It is here in this and every Eucharist that we encounter our Good Shepherd who wants to show us who we are called to be in God’s sight.
But we need to listen to what God is saying to us. “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” Of course God knows us intimately, but we must take the time to get to know God just as intimately. “My sheep know me.” God can only reveal His plan for our lives if our eyes are open, our hearts are tuned, and we are seeking that answer, that direction. Our challenge is to create environments that allows us to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, so that we can follow where He leads.
The Good Shepherd is calling all of us to something, and the answer to what that is lies right before our eyes in the Eucharist. St. Claire of Assisi would say that the Eucharist is a kind of mirror for us. The more we gaze into that mirror, the more we will see what God is asking of us reflected back. Her prayer before the Eucharist was always, “Gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate Christ.” It is a reminder that we may begin today on the surface merely gazing, but the more deeply we look into Jesus, the more we will eventually reflect Him to the world.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “You are what You are before God. That and nothing more.” And nothing less. The Good Shepherd helps us to see ourselves through the eyes of faith – as God’s sons and daughters. In this Mass we discover that identity. Receiving the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, tells us something about Jesus, but also something about ourselves. When we enter into that personal relationship with Jesus that we can only have in the Eucharist, Jesus helps us to discover who He calls us to be. In fact, we are never more clearly ourselves than we are right here; gathered around the Table of the Lord for the Eucharist. If you want to know what Jesus asks of you; if you want to know what Jesus wants you to do; if you want to know your truest destiny – meet Jesus here and he will reveal it to you.
“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.”
May the Lord give you peace.
HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER, April 28, 2019:
Just a week ago, on Easter Sunday, we were shocked once again as yet another terror attack took place. This time in Sri Lanka, targeting Christians gathered for Easter Sunday Mass. As we know more than 300 have died, more than 500 injured in these senseless and violent attacks. You may recall that a similar thing happened last year, as well, on Palm Sunday, as Coptic Catholic churches in Egypt were attacked. It was another of those moments of violence and terror that have become a too-regular part of our lives over the last few decades. But in the midst of that tragedy, there was also a great witness of faith.
Following last year’s attacks, a reporter interviewed the widow of Naseem Faheem. Naseem was a security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. On that Palm Sunday morning, he encountered a man behaving suspiciously. Naseem stopped him outside the church to question him and seconds later, that man detonated a bomb, blowing himself up and killing Naseem. Naseem, a man of faith, saved dozens of lives just by doing his job, and he was hailed as a hero and a martyr.
Days later, his widow was asked in a TV interview for her thoughts about what had happened to her husband. She answered in a way no one expected. She said, “I’m not angry at the one who did this.” And addressing her husband’s killer she said, “Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of. May God forgive you, and we also forgive you.”
The camera then turned to a stunned anchorman, Amr Adeeb, one of the most popular TV personalities in Egypt, and, a Muslim. Deeply moved, he struggled to find the words. Finally, he said, “The Christians of Egypt are made of steel. How great is this forgiveness! This is their faith!”
This is their faith. And my friends, this is our faith. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Our Gospel today calls us to reflect in the midst of our Easter joy on what it means for us to be a people of faith; a people who believe in the saving power of Jesus. It reminds us that our faith is not always nice and fluffy, but that it has real world consequences in the most serious of moments.
Our Gospel presents us with the story of the most well-known doubter in the Bible – the apostle Thomas. For obvious reasons, I have always had a great affinity for Thomas and have also always found that he gets a bad rap known as the Doubting Thomas. But, as we just heard in the proclamation, doubting is not where Thomas ends up – believing is! He makes perhaps the greatest profession of faith in Scripture, “My Lord and my God.” So, as you can guess, I don’t think that “doubting” is a fair assessment of Thomas’ faith.
The usual take on today’s Gospel goes something like this – Jesus appeared to the disciples, except Thomas who wasn’t there. Jesus gives them the gift of peace; He breathes the Holy Spirit on them and gives them a mission to go forth and forgive sins. Everyone believed, except poor Thomas who, of course, gets labeled the doubter. The message from too many preachers will be: Don’t be like poor, poor Thomas, instead have some faith like the rest of the apostles.
However, Bible commentator Russell Saltzman gives the story a new spin. He wrote, Notice that “[the other apostles] didn’t go anywhere, did they? They stayed put. They didn’t venture an inch. They didn’t undo a single sin anywhere. They remained together and they were still there when Thomas finally shows.”
Saltzman goes on to say that if Thomas did indeed doubt, perhaps he didn’t doubt Jesus, but he doubted his fellow apostles. After all, if Jesus appeared as they said, if He gave them peace as they said, if He breathed the Holy Spirit as they said, and if He gave them a mission as they said, then why were they still locked up afraid in that upper room? “If you’ve been sent, what are you still doing here?” is Thomas’ dilemma. From Thomas’ perspective, an encounter with the Risen Jesus should have produced some fruit on the part of his fellow apostles, instead, he finds them right where he left them – afraid in the Upper Room.
Fast forward a week later, when Thomas is present, he receives the same gifts from Jesus and Tradition tells us that Thomas was the first apostle to leave Jerusalem. From his encounter with the Risen Lord, Thomas made a huge leap of faith to the full divinity of Christ that the others didn’t and was able to proclaim: “My Lord and my God.” And with that he traveled, further and faster than all the rest, all the way to the tip of India. This is not the behavior of a doubter.
This is all a simple way of saying – especially on this Second Sunday of Easter – that Easter, the Resurrection, our faith should also make a difference in our lives; a difference that shows. It made a difference in the life of Naseem Faheem and his family. It made a difference in the life of Thomas. And so, our encounter with the Risen Jesus should move us too and not leave us right where He found us. My friends, our God appears to us here again today. He speaks His word, He offers His Son, He gives us a mission. We, just like the apostles, are being sent – will we go anywhere? Will it make a difference in the way we are living our lives?
Pope Francis spoke about this encounter between Jesus and Thomas not long after his election, and how this encounter is meant to send us our in mission. The Pope said, “The path to our encounter with Jesus are his wounds. There is no other. Jesus tells us [as He told Thomas] that the path to encountering Him is to find His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy; by giving to the body of your wounded brother or sister because they are hungry, because they are thirsty, because they are naked, humiliated, or a slave; because they are in jail, or in a hospital. These are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus. We must caress the wounds of Jesus. We need to kiss and bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness. And we must do this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed."
My friends, today it is we who are in the Upper Room. It is we to whom Jesus offers peace and the gifts of His Spirit. It is we who are once again sent. Let us act in faith like Naseem, without question. Let us proclaim with Thomas, My Lord and my God, and then bring Jesus to our world.
Happy Easter and may the Lord give you peace.