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.