FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 7th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 24, 2019:
Like most people, I can never forget the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Of course we were all stunned to witness the violent attacks on our country. For me, personally, I was still a new priest at the time of the attacks. I had not yet been ordained for a full year. And, I remember in the aftermath of the attack, how much of a moment of faith it was for our nation, and especially for the parish where I was stationed. We immediately began holding special Masses and prayer services and just kept the doors of the church open. People came in droves to draw near to God in those days. But, perhaps the most poignant memory of that moment for me was the day after, September 12th, 2001. I was preparing for Mass for that day and begging God in prayer for the right words for his hurting people. And, as I opened up Scripture to look at the readings for Mass that day, my jaw dropped, and my heart sank. What words had God given to comfort our wounded hearts the day after the worst attack on American soil? “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
I don’t know if there was ever a more difficult day to hear those words from Jesus. I also know, however, it was the most important day I ever heard them or preached on them. In the midst of the aftermath of a day before, precisely at the moment when our minds were angry and our hearts wanted to turn to vengeance, God’s Holy Word instead said, “I know that this is horrible. I know that this moment is difficult. But, do not allow it to change who I created you to be. Remember who you are.” It is quite simply, a moment that I will never forget – one of the most formative moments in my life, in fact.
Today, 18 years later, these words of Jesus still need to be spoken to our hearts. Thankfully we have not seen another day as bad as that one and pray that we won’t, but Jesus message to love our enemies is one that we regularly need to be reminded of. It offers us a message that is the antidote to what we hear every day. Our world is full of voices that encourage us to vilify others, seek revenge, and be the aggressor. Are we really meant to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give without expecting repayment, refuse to pass judgment on people, pray for those who are unkind to us? Of course we are – it is the defining characteristic of those who follow Christ.
With this bold command to love our enemies, Jesus is trying to get us to move – in heart and mind and soul – away from the way of the world and into the Way of the Kingdom. Leviticus said it best today, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is calling us to see that we waste so much energy holding on to past hurts, trying to settle old scores, even handing down grudges from one generation to the next. How many of us are angry with someone because of the way they treated us, something they said to us, or something they said about us – a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, how about years ago? This is not what we are called to. We aren’t called to anger, judgment and resentment. We are called to love – always, everywhere, everyone, with no conditions or exceptions. And not a superficial kind of love; not a huggy-feely love, not an all-accepting generic love that fails to ask anything of us or the other. Jesus inaugurates a new kind of love – one that is so profound, so deep that it leads Him all the way to the Cross for us; a love so powerful that it is transformative of not only us as individuals, but even of the whole world. Jesus hanging on that cross – specifically for you, for me – is the greatest symbol of love that has ever existed. He didn’t do that merely for some unknown person eons ago. He did that for you because He loves you.
Jesus wants us to do in the world what He did for us - to outdo violence toward us with generosity, goodness, kindness, mercy and compassion. I overwhelm any evil with our constant acts of goodness. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love, forgiveness and mercy of God – as expressed in the world by you and by me; expressed not just when nothing is happening, when all is calm – but expressed when everything is on the line.
I often like to say that there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really, really mean; or really, really, deserves it.” Our Lord and Savior says simply, “Love, and bless and pray.” This Christian heroism does not merely respond to evil in the world, but transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness. But it takes real courage to practice it.
A priest was preaching on the theme of “Love your enemies.” In the midst of the homily, he asked how many parishioners were willing to forgive their enemies. Everyone raised their hand except one elderly lady in the front row. “Mrs. Jones, you are not willing to forgive your enemies?” the priest asked. “I don't have any,” she said. Surprised, the priest said, “That is very unusual. Can I ask how old you are?” “One hundred and two,” she responded. The priest said, “Please tell me how you have lived for 102 years and not have an enemy in the world.” The sweet lady, smiled, and said, “Oh, Father, I’ve had plenty of enemies. It’s just that, by now, I’ve outlived them all!”
Today, Jesus challenges us once again to be radically different than the world. To love even the most difficult in our midst; to love even our enemies. Love, give, pray, forgive – even just a little more; and together we will transform the world. And so, I ask you today, how many of you are willing to love your enemies?
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 17, 2019:
Let me start today with a simple survey. Raise your hand if you would love to be poor, starving, weeping and hated by everybody. Anyone? Okay, now raise your hand if you would love to be rich, well fed, laughing and well-spoken of in the community. A few more of you. One final question, raise your hand if you would like to be among those considered “blessed” by God? Okay, this could be challenging. Listen to Jesus, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. But woe to you who are rich, who are filled now, who laugh now, when all speak well of you.” Maybe I should ask the questions again?
We hear today a very familiar and beloved passage of Scripture: the Beatitudes. But, if we’ve never really thought about its message, perhaps today we realize it can be challenging, or even misunderstood. Just think of the famous line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers?” If you don’t know the reference, please google it when you go home. And yet, St. Pope John Paul II called the Beatitudes “the Magna Carta of Christianity.”
This passage always calls to mind for me a trip I made with the youth in my parish to World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada. St. John Paul focused on this passage at that gathering. He said, for example, “A crowd of people is gathered around Jesus, all of them anxiously awaiting a word, a gesture that will give them comfort and hope. We too are gathered here to listen attentively to the Lord. He looks at you with affection, feels the deep longing that beats within your hearts: you want to be happy! Many and enticing are the voices that call out to you from all sides and speak to you of a joy that can be had with money, with success, with power. Dear friends, the aged Pope, full of years but still young at heart, answers your desire for happiness with words that are not his own. They are words that rang out two thousand years ago. Words that we have heard again tonight: ‘Blessed are they.’ The key word in Jesus’ teaching is a proclamation of joy: ‘Blessed are they’ People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But he asks you to trust him. True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.”
Now to be clear, Jesus is not saying that poverty is great, that hunger, weeping, hatred, sorrow are all wonderful. Rather, He is reminding us of our priorities – that following God, no matter the cost – is the best thing in the world. Jesus wants us to be people who seek blessing above all other things. We should seek that blessing even if the world offers us money, power, prestige and position. The key to the passage are the words, “on account of the Son of Man.” Luke reminds us that if we do everything and anything “on account of [Jesus],” it will be turned into blessing. And so even poverty on account of Jesus is better than riches on account of ourselves and the selfishness our world encourages.
When Luke wrote this gospel being named a Christian would result in being disowned by family, rejected by friends, excluded from the synagogue, losing your inheritance, and any commerce in the community. Following Christ would mean being quickly reduced to a state of poverty. And so Jesus says, “Blessed are you.” We may not face the same extremes today as followers, but Jesus still wants us to seek blessing in our lives above all else. Jesus wants us to take the risk and to be people of His Beatitudes and not people of the world. Jesus wants us to see that all of the riches and power in the world will never bring even one soul to Heaven. “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose their soul?”
Let me end with a few more words St. John Paul from that World Youth Day, “Dear friends, the Church today looks to you with confidence and expects you to be the people of the Beatitudes. Blessed are you if, like Jesus, you are poor in spirit, good and merciful; if you really seek what it just and right; if you are pure of heart, peacemakers, lovers of the poor and their servants. Blessed are you! Today Jesus calls you to choose goodness, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace. His call has always demanded a choice between good and evil, between light and darkness, between life and death. He makes the same invitation today to you. Answer the Lord with strong and generous hearts! He is counting on you. Never forget: Christ needs you to carry out his plan of salvation! Christ needs [you] to make his proclamation of joy resound in the new millennium. Answer his call by placing your lives at his service in your brothers and sisters! Trust Christ, because He trusts you.”
Let us all live lives so focused on Christ above all else that we too may one day be counted among those who are blessed by God.
May the Lord give you Blessing and Peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 10, 2019:
One of my favorite movies is the Steven Speilberg movie, Amistad. If you know it, Amistad tells the story of a group of slaves who were able to win their freedom with the help of John Quincy Adams in the Supreme Court long before slavery was abolished in this country. There is a poignant scene when the main character is given a copy of the Bible by an Abolitionist. However, he speaks no English and had never heard of Jesus Christ and so he doesn’t know what the book is. But the illustrations in this Bible fascinated him. At one point, two of the slaves are alone in their jail cell. One thinks that the other carries the book simply to impress people and he says, “No one is watching you here, you can put the book down.” But the other responds, “No, I think I have figured out the story.” Pointing to the pictures he says, “See, things were very bad for these people, it was a dark time, and they were oppressed. Worse even than us.” He flips a page to the scene at the manger in Bethlehem, “But, see here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” Referring to the drawing which depicts Christ with a halo he said, “You can see that he was very important, even the sun followed him where ever he went.”
That changed everything. When I was a young man around 22 years old, I was working as an investigative reporter here in the South Coast. I covered New Bedford Superior Court and the District Attorneys Office, and at that time in my life, I was very far from God. But, then, one night something happened to me that had never happened before. I was struck with a desire to go to Mass. That might sound like a normal desire to you, but for me at that point in my life, I had never really felt that way before. Faith was something that I appreciated in friends and members of my family, especially my Mom, but it was not something strong in my life. This desire to go to Mass was such a strong feeling that I couldn’t ignore it and the next day I went to church. The experience was unlike any other time that I had ever been before. Suddenly the readings from Scripture seemed to have impact in my life, the homily of the priest seemed like every word spoken was just for me. And, when he prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, “This is my Body given for you. This is my Blood for you,” it was as though I had never heard them before, and in this moment I knew they were true, not just in my mind but in my heart. When I returned to my pew to pray after receiving Holy Communion, I was reduced to tears, so powerfully had I experienced God in my life that day. From that moment, God’s presence in my life continued to grow until I came to the reality that I had to give God all of myself, all of my life, and I knew that I needed to become a priest. That moment, that night, when God placed in my heart a desire to go to Mass, is literally the moment in time that changed everything for me. It was a moment that defined who I am, who God wanted me to be.
This changes everything. Hopefully in all of our lives there are these singular moments that define who we are, that set our lives on their course, that change everything for us. Nothing will be the same. For some it is finding the right job, the one we’ve always dreamed about; for others it can be meeting the right person, the one you were meant to spend your life with; for still others, it can be the birth of a child and how that changes your perspective on life. These moments can also be in the negative – losing that job, finding a key relationship fractured, losing a loved one you were close to. But, how many of those life-changing moments involve God?
Our Scriptures today place before us three people - Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Each of them have an experience of God that changes everything. Isaiah sees the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne. God’s presence shakes the door of his house. His reaction, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Paul recounts his own unworthiness at having been called to be an apostle, despite his own persecution of the church. Paul’s reaction? “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace has not been ineffective.” And Peter, at Jesus’ command catches a miraculous amount of fish. His reaction? “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
This changes everything. You couldn’t ask for three people more different than Isaiah, Paul and Peter, and yet despite their very different lives, they each have a similarly life-changing encounter with God. In so many ways, that’s the story of the Bible itself over and over, the story of how God calls people to Himself and calls them to be more like His Son in the world. We see over and over again that that being in the presence of God changes everything; it changes the one who encounters God – it changes us. And that is change we can believe in!
As we come to Mass today, and every time we come, we have the opportunity to truly encounter God in so many ways. He is truly present in one another – “where two or more are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them” – so, when you look at the person on your right and left, in front and in back, God is truly here as we gather in His name. God is truly present to us today in His Word which was proclaimed in the readings which always end with the moving proclamation, “The Word of the Lord.” We mean it! Did you hear God speak to you today? God will be truly present in bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Jesus before our very eyes in the Eucharist today. And we will take that presence into our own bodies in the hopes that, as St. Augustine famously said, we will “become what we receive.” God hopes to change us by this encounter.
Hopefully, we encounter Him in many other places in our lives too – in our loving relationships, in our encounters with the poor and the marginalized, the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the needy. We encounter God in the beauty of nature, and words and music and art. He is all around us waiting to engage us in the hopes that we will be daily changed into more loving, kind, compassionate, caring, merciful, forgiving and gentle people. Just imagine what our world would look like if we so eagerly sought out those life-changing encounters with God that are all around us.
Our celebration of the Holy Mass today is asking us – how do I react to God’s presence? Am I blind to God, not even aware that He is here? Do I shy away from God because I know my sinfulness? Yet it is precisely because we are sinners that God comes to us; to transform us by His Grace. Just think of the powerful prayer we say just before receiving Communion – “Lord I am not worthy…but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” – the power of that prayer is in our trust that through God’s word we are healed and saved. Even in the moments when we feel the greatest distance from God; He is always present waiting to transform us in His love and Grace.
Let us pray to have eyes and hearts open to see our God who is present all around us, and to respond with humility. As Jesus appears on our altar, let us ask Him to enter into our hearts and transform us to become what we receive – that same presence of God, the Body of Christ, in the world.
This changes everything. “Only say the word, and we shall be healed.”
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR 4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 3, 2019:
How many of you remember the old Dionne Warwick song, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love.” That song was running through my head as I reflected on our second reading today and its great statement on Love. This passage from Corinthians is one of the most well-known verses in all of Scripture. And for good reason – if you want to know what true love is, read that chapter over and over again. Many times in church we speak about the importance of love. The Christian life is all about love. Even God, Scripture tells us, is love itself.
Today, however, I want us to do more than just talk about love. We talk about love all the time. But, as Jesus – and Dionne – remind us, we need more love in our world. This reading causes us to ask in our own lives, how much of a loving person am I? An exercise based on this reading helps us to find that out easily. The reading we heard proclaimed said, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
But what if we changed some of the words put “JESUS” and “HE” wherever we find “LOVE” and “IT.” So, instead, we hear that “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He is not jealous, He is not pompous, He is not inflated, He is not rude, He does not seek His own interests, He is not quick-tempered, He does not brood over injury, He does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That still sounds pretty good. And we would all agree with it, I’m sure. But, what now if we went one more step farther and replaced the same words placing ourselves in the reading? Say it with me in your own heart. “I am patient, I am kind. I am not jealous, I am not pompous, I am not inflated, I am not rude, I do not seek my own interests, I am not quick-tempered, I do not brood over injury, I do not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” Placing ourselves into the reading, do we still agree with every line in the passage? Is each line still true for us? How do we score ourselves on this love scale? Because, this is the measure of loving that God gives us; this is they way He wants us to love. “What the world needs now, is love sweet love.”
There is a story about a teacher who gave his class an assignment to go and tell someone that they loved them before the next week's class. It had to be someone to whom they had never said those words before, or at least not for a very long time. At the next class, one person stood up and recounted his story to the class. He said to the teacher, “I was angry with you last week when you gave us this assignment. I felt, ‘who were you to tell us to do something so personal?’ But as I was driving home, my conscience started talking to me. It was telling me that I knew exactly who I needed to say “I love you” to. Five years ago, my father and I had a terrible argument which we have never resolved. We have avoided seeing each other since and hardly speak to each other. So last week by the time I had gotten home after class, I had convinced myself to tell my father that I loved him. It’s strange, but just making the decision seemed to lift a heavy load off my chest. When I told my wife, she jumped out of bed, gave me a big hug and for the first time in our married life saw me cry. We sat up half of the night talking.
“The next day I was up bright and early. At 9AM, I called my father to tell him I wanted to come over after work and talk to him. He reluctantly agreed. By 5:30, I was at the house. When my father answered the door, I didn't waste any time. I took one step inside and blurted out ‘Dad, I just came over to tell you that I love you.’ Well, it was as if a transformation had come over him. Before my eyes, his face softened, the wrinkles seemed to disappear and he too began to cry. He reached out and hugged me, saying ‘I love you too, son, but I’ve never been able to say it.’ My mother walked by just then with tears in her eyes. I had not felt that wonderful, happy and peaceful in a very long time. Two days after my visit, my dad, who had heart problems but hadn’t told us, had an attack and died. So my message is this: don’t wait to do the things you know need to be done, to express the love that is in your heart.”
My friends, we know that True Love transforms us and transforms our world. The love of God transformed our sins into the glory of Heaven through the Cross. God’s love today will turn mere bread and wine into His very presence in our midst. God’s love can turn around any challenging relationships in our lives, any sins we struggle to move away from, any brokenness or pain we might feel. It is that powerful.
There is no greater antidote to the greed, power, selfishness, cruelty, and evil that exists in our world than the Love that God gives us and calls forth from us. And it should be obvious to all of us that our world truly needs more love. Just imagine what our world could look like if we were truly guided by the love that God has placed in our hearts. If we could say with all truth, “I am patient, I am kind. I am not jealous, I am not pompous, I am not inflated, I am not rude, I do not seek my own interests, I am not quick-tempered, I do not brood over injury, I do not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” It would look like Heaven on earth.
And so, I offer to each of you, and to myself, the same challenge as our story. Go home and tell someone you love them before next Sunday. Tell someone you really love, but to whom you have never said those words before, or at least not for a very long time. Maybe you have a fractured or broken relationship that needs to be healed. Invite God’s love in because, my friends, “Love never fails.”
May the Lord give you peace.