Saturday, June 10, 2006

’Over The Hedge’: A Teaching Opportunity

Some of RJ's 'friends'

RJ the raccoon

(Trinity Sunday 2006: This homily was given on June 11, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 28: 16-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Trinity Sunday 2006]

A hungry raccoon desperately tries to get a bag of chips out of a vending machine that’s sitting in front of a rest stop on the side of the road.

He does everything he can think of to get the bag to fall to a place where he can grab it, but nothing works.

Then he remembers that a big bear is hibernating in a cave on a hill across the street. He goes into the cave, and there he discovers a mountain of human junk food—obviously either found or stolen by the bear before he began his yearly snooze.

The raccoon piles the food onto a little red wagon and begins to wheel it ever-so-quietly out of the cave.

But then GREED gets the better of him.

He looks back, and he sees the sleeping bear cradling a container of potato chips, and the expression on his face indicates exactly what he’s thinking: “I want those! Even though I’ve got more than enough food here in this wagon, I want those chips!”

So he decides to go back and get them. For a brief moment he reconsiders his decision, but he eventually gives in to the temptation.

That sets off a string of events: the bear wakes up; the wagon and the food are destroyed in an accident; and the angry bear threatens the raccoon with death unless he replaces all the ruined food items within 7 days.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Fr. Ray, that’s a little ‘over the edge’.”

To which I respond, “No. But it certainly is ‘Over the Hedge’!” That’s because (as some of the children in the congregation know) what I just described to you was the opening scene of the new movie from DreamWorks films which bears that title.

Although it certainly isn’t perfect, all in all “Over the Hedge” is a very good film—at least in my humble estimation. I say that because it’s a fun, entertaining movie that also teaches a lot of important lessons, not the least of which is how sins like greed can get you into big trouble!

Little RJ the raccoon shouldn’t have been stealing food from Vincent the bear; and he certainly didn’t need that last box of potato chips. But in his greed he just had to have it!

And that caused him not only to get a death threat from an angry Vincent; it also led him to manipulate others for his own selfish ends. In fact, much of the rest of the film is about how RJ uses the other animals in the forest to help him steal food from people in a brand new housing development. The housing development, incidentally, is located on the other side of a big hedge (hence the title, “Over the Hedge”).

I mention this today because of what Jesus says in this Gospel text from Matthew 28.

These are the final words that our Lord speaks to his apostles just before he ascends to heaven. That means they’re EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!

As we all know, the final words a person speaks before leaving this earth very often reveal his deepest sentiments and deepest desires.

And such is the case here.

These final words of Jesus express his deepest desire for us and for every human person. Our Lord says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

The first instruction Jesus gives here is to baptize people in the name of the Blessed Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And that should make perfect sense to us, because that’s how people get into the state of grace!

We need to be in the state of grace in order to go to heaven, and we get into that “state” by receiving Baptism in some form.

But even though Baptism is necessary, Jesus knew that something more is also required. You see, it’s one thing to get into the state of grace; it’s quite another thing to REMAIN there!

This is why he gave his apostles (and all of us) another command before he ascended to heaven: the command to teach! To remain in the state of grace, people need to be taught the truth of the Gospel! They need to be taught it, so that they can live it.

Now obviously the best teaching is done by example. A living witness—a good, holy Catholic who lives his faith—is the best kind of teacher.

But God also expects us to teach in other ways; for instance, by using elements of our everyday experience—like current events and popular songs and movies—to convey moral and spiritual lessons to those around us.

And he gives us these opportunities all the time. Like this new DreamWorks film!

As I sat in the theater the other day I thought to myself, “What a great opportunity to teach young people some rock solid biblical lessons that will help them stay rooted in Jesus Christ!”

Needless to say, if I had children grade 2 and older I would definitely take them to see this movie. And I can tell you what I would say to them on the way home. I’d keep the radio off, and I’d try to get my children to PROCESS what they just saw on the screen from a spiritual, Christian perspective. I’d do that by saying things like this:

“So what did you think of the movie?”

“That RJ was pretty funny; he was quite the character. But he got himself into a lot of trouble didn’t he?”

“See what happens when you get greedy and you steal? He just had to have those chips, didn’t he? You know, God gives us that seventh commandment—‘Thou shalt not steal’—for a reason!”

“And what did you think of the way RJ treated those other animals? Wasn’t that terrible? He said he was their friend, but he really wasn’t, was he?”

“Have any of you ever felt like that before—like somebody used you?”

“This is why it’s so important to follow Jesus. He wants us to share, and not be greedy, and to really love and care about other people.”

“And isn’t it interesting how the different animals spoke of themselves as a ‘family’—even though they weren’t related like we are? I think it’s a lot like the Church, don’t you? The Church is God’s spiritual family. Even though we’re not related to most of the people we go to church with, we’re all brothers and sisters of Jesus, and we have God as our one, true Father in heaven.”

The conversation would certainly go on from there, but I’ll stop at this point because if I go any further I might give away the ending of the movie—and that might ruin things for those of you who are planning to see it.

But you get my point. We need to make the conscious effort to use elements of our everyday experience to teach others—especially our young people—the timeless truths of the Gospel; because the world is always teaching them the opposite message. The world is always teaching them—and feeding them—its lies!

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

If our Lord were standing here this morning, he might add to those words by saying, “And make sure you don’t miss any of the teaching opportunities I give you!—because there will be lots of them. They will be literally everywhere—even in funny little animated films like ‘Over the Hedge’.”