Sunday, February 28, 2010

God’s Promises to Abraham and Us

(Second Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on February 28, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 15:5-18; Philippians 3:17-4:10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2010]

Here are 7 things that many Christians believe:

1. If you love and serve God faithfully in your life, the Lord will keep you physically healthy.
2. If you are a good Christian, God will always say yes to your prayers.
3. If you are faithful to the Lord, he will make you financially prosperous.
4. If you give your life completely to Christ, you will not have any serious problems in your life.
5. If you love God and are married, the Lord will see to it that your spouse always loves you back.
6. If you put the Lord first in your life, other people will recognize that fact and think you’re a wonderful person.
7. If you follow God’s rules in this life, you will always be rewarded in this life.

As I said a few moments ago, these are 7 beliefs which are held by many Catholics and by many other Christians. And that’s sad, because each and every one of them is false! (I’m sure you all realized that as I was going through the list—right?)

They’re not true, of course, because they involve false promises; or, to be more exact, they’re not true because they each express a promise that Almighty God has never made—to any human being!

In exchange for obedience and faithfulness, God never promised to keep you physically healthy for your entire life on earth (although you will probably avoid a lot of unnecessary medical problems if you’re obedient to him).

If you’re faithful, he never promised to say yes to all your prayers of petition. (Even the great saints were told no at times.)

He never promised financial prosperity in exchange for obedience (although if you live by the gospel ethic you will certainly avoid some financial difficulties that others experience—like the kind that come from excessive gambling!).

He certainly never said you won’t have any serious problems in your life. (Quite to the contrary, Jesus said that his disciples WOULD suffer in this world because of their faithfulness!)

He never promised those of you who are married that your spouse will always respond to your love with love (although that’s much more likely to happen in a good Christian marriage).

He never said that if you put him first in your life other people will always pat you on the back and tell you how wonderful you are. (The apostles who died as martyrs disproved that one.)

Nor did he ever say that if you live by his rules you will always be rewarded here on earth. (Sometimes that will happen, but in most cases the reward will come in eternity, not here.)

God does not deliver on these and on other promises that he’s never made. From a purely human perspective, you might say that’s the bad news. On the other hand, God does deliver on the promises he has made! And very often what’s delivered far exceeds our expectation—which is very, very good news!

Take, for example, the promise of many descendants that he made to Abram in today’s first reading from Genesis 15. God took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so shall your descendents be.” God also promised to give Abram a homeland—the land of Canaan. He promised to make of him “a great nation” in Genesis 12. He even promised to make him the “father of a host of nations” in Genesis 17 (he did that when he changed his name from Abram to Abraham).

And God did deliver on all these promises. Every last one of them. We know that from reading the rest of the Bible. But the fulfillment of these promises went far beyond anything Abraham could have possibly imagined at the time.

When he first received these promises from the Lord, Abraham probably thought to himself, “Oh this is really nice. God’s going to make me a really important guy! He’s going to give me a big family, a nice place to live, and a position of influence in the world. I like that!”

Abraham had no idea that God, through him, was establishing a spiritual family that would eventually extend over the entire planet, and include people not only from his generation, but also from every generation to come until the end of time! (Remember, we still call Abraham “our father in faith.”) Not only that, God made Abraham the father of a spiritual family that exists unto eternity; a spiritual family that actually transcends time! The promised land God gave him in Canaan all those years ago was merely a foreshadowing of the eternal promised land of the kingdom of heaven!

This, of course, is the goal of our lives as Christians; it’s the goal of our lives as baptized, Christian members of Abraham’s spiritual family. As St. Paul tells us in our second reading today from Philippians 3: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

However, to reach that goal successfully, we need to cling to the other true promises that God has made to us in this life (not to the false promises I mentioned earlier that he has NOT made!).

So what has the Lord promised us if we’re faithful—besides heaven?

Well, among other things, he’s promised to be with us in every circumstance of our lives, good and bad. As Jesus said, “Know that I am with you always—always!—until the end of time.” (Matthew 28: 20)

He has not promised us a problem-free life, but he has promised us the grace we need to deal with our problems. What the Lord once said to St. Paul he says to each of us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for in your weakness my power reaches its perfection.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9)

And yes, he did promise us that we would suffer on this earth; but he also promised us that we could experience ‘victory’ in our suffering by allowing it to purify us and refine our faith. As Jesus said at the Last Supper: “You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.” (John 16: 33)

And he promised us that all our acts of virtue and love, done in the state of grace, will be rewarded—if not here, then definitely in eternity. As he said in Matthew 10: 42, “And I promise you that whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is a disciple will not want for his reward.”

And as St. Paul reminded us, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2: 9)

We do not worship a god who reneges on his promises; nor do we worship a god who makes promises that he can’t—or won’t—keep.

We worship a God who is loving, compassionate and trustworthy: a God who fulfills every one of the promises that he has actually made to us.

O Lord, help us all to believe that, and to rely on you—and on your real promises—every day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Word for Lent: Perseverance!

[Click here for the audio version of this homily: Ash Wednesday 2010]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Spiritually-Mature Trust in God

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 14, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jeremiah 17: 5-8.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2010]

There’s an old story told about Rabbi Goldstein, who once took a trip to a small village in a strange land. He brought with him a donkey, a rooster and a lamp. Now unfortunately, the people who lived in this particular village were anti-Semitic, so they refused to allow the rabbi to stay in one of their inns. He ended up sleeping in the woods.

Before he turned in for the night, he decided that he would read and study the Scriptures for awhile; however a very strong wind suddenly came up, knocking over his lamp and breaking it. That made it impossible for him to read. The rabbi, however, took it all in stride. He accepted it as the Lord’s permissive will and said, “All that God does, God does well.”

During the night while he was asleep a few other bad things happened: some wild animals came along and drove away his rooster, and some thieves came along and stole his donkey.

When the rabbi woke up in the morning, he realized that his rooster and donkey were gone; but once again he accepted it, saying, “All that God does, God does well.”

He then went back to the village where the people had refused to welcome him and take him in. When he got there he learned that enemy soldiers had come in during the night and had killed all the villagers. He also learned that the soldiers had traveled through the very same part of the woods where he had been sleeping. He then realized that if the villagers had not turned him away, the soldiers would have found him in one of the inns and would have killed him on the spot. If his lamp had not been broken, they would have seen him in the woods and killed him there. The same thing would have happened if his rooster had not been chased away and his donkey stolen. The rooster and donkey would have made some noise when the soldiers were near, and the rabbi would have been discovered—and killed.

Once again the rabbi said, “All that God does, God does well!”

This rabbi had the kind of trust in God that Jeremiah speaks about in today’s first reading when he says, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord.”

Jeremiah goes on to speak there about heat and drought—periods, in other words, of intense trial and suffering. His message is clear: Those who trust the Lord in this way are able to face great difficulties in their lives and pass through them successfully. Their trust in God does not make them immune from severe trials, but it does make a big difference in their ability to deal with them.

A person with this kind of trust is, as the prophet says there, “Like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

This is a spiritually-mature trust in God—which means that it’s not as common as it should be! I think it’s safe to say that, in circumstances similar to the ones this rabbi faced, most people would be extremely upset! They would be angry!

And, from a purely human perspective, you couldn’t blame them for being upset and angry, since almost everything that could go wrong for this poor rabbi did go wrong for him! The villagers treated him like a pariah; he broke his lamp, he lost his rooster, and his donkey was stolen! But somehow God was at work in the midst of it all, and things worked out for the rabbi’s ultimate good. And that didn’t surprise him, because he had such a deep, spiritually-mature trust in the Lord. As he so often said, “All that God does, God does well!”

God does not cause evil, but he sometimes permits evil for the sake of a greater good. That’s a very important theological and spiritual truth! It’s a truth that we see illustrated in this little story. But it’s a truth that can be very difficult to believe when we’re experiencing such an evil in our own lives—because the greater good is often hidden from our view.

In fact that’s the way it might have been for this rabbi, had he not gone back to the village. Think about it. If he had gotten up in the morning and had immediately returned to his home, he might never have found out what the Lord had protected him from the night before!

Speaking of “hidden goods,” a question that has crossed my mind in recent weeks is this one: Why did God allow that terrible earthquake in Haiti? I mean, of all places! Those people had so little BEFORE the earthquake struck; now they have almost nothing!

Dear Lord, what’s the greater good here?

Well, I don’t claim to know the mind of God on this matter, but the thought has occurred to me in the last few days that perhaps the Lord allowed this tragedy for our sake—for the sake of those of us who live lives of relative comfort in affluent countries. I think you could make a good case for that.

The Bible tells us that charity covers a multitude of sins. Jesus said that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him. I ask you, before this earthquake, how many people in the United States and in the affluent western world were in danger of losing their souls because of avarice and materialism? How many were on their way to hell because of their excessive attachment to the things of this world?

Well I dare say that at least some of those men and women who were on the wrong road have responded with great compassion and generosity to the poor of Haiti during this crisis. Praise God! Perhaps that’s a sign that they’ve begun to re-prioritize their lives, and seek God, and love their neighbor in a way that will ultimately get them into the kingdom of heaven.

If that’s the case, then God will have brought incredible good out of an otherwise horrible evil.

“All that God does, God does well.” May those words of trust which were so often on the lips of Rabbi Goldstein always be in our hearts—when we see the greater good that comes from our suffering, and especially when we don’t.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


(Fifth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on Sunday, February 7, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 6: 1-8; Luke 5: 1-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2010]

What do all these people have in common?

Jack comes into church before Mass from the side door, walks by the tabernacle, and immediately takes his seat in the first pew.

Jill comes in the front door, and immediately goes over to the statues and lights a candle. Then she turns around and walks out.

Joe sits in the last row and text messages his friends many times during Mass.

Jane chews gum while Mass is going on.

James wears his weekday-worst instead of his Sunday-best when he comes to church for Mass.

Jerry comes to Communion with his mind on the pretty girl in front of him and receives the Holy Eucharist without giving it a second thought and without making any gesture beforehand.

John comes to Mass late every week—although he could easily be on time; and he leaves early.

Justine talks more to her friends than to God when she comes to Sunday Liturgy.

Finally, Jacob comes to Mass faithfully each week, but only out of obligation and not because he thinks he needs it.

So, what do all these people have in common?

They all get on Father Ray’s nerves, right?

Well, yes, that is true—people like that do get on my nerves (and on the nerves of most other priests!); however that’s not the answer I’m looking for.

What they all have in common is a lack of proper reverence for God! Perhaps it’s not intentional; in fact, in most cases it probably isn’t intentional—but it’s a lack of reverence nonetheless.

How different Isaiah and Peter were! In our first reading from Isaiah 6, the prophet sees a vision of God on his heavenly throne, with a multitude of angels all around him singing his praises, and he’s so awestruck that he thinks he’s about to die! He cries out, “Woe to me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Peter in today’s gospel text has a similar reaction after Jesus works a fish-catching miracle for him and his friends! After catching nothing the previous night, the future apostles throw their nets over the side of the boat at the command of Jesus, and they immediately catch so many fish that their boat almost sinks.

And just like Isaiah, Peter responds with reverence and awe. He falls to his knees in a sign of worship and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

That, incidentally, was a prayer which Jesus Christ did not answer—thank God. We may abandon the Lord at times, but he never abandons us, as he never abandoned Peter.

In this year of evangelization, that’s an important message for us to share with those who have been away from Christ and the sacraments for an extended period of time. They need to know that the Lord has not abandoned them and wants them to come home—soon!

Coming back now to those people I mentioned at the beginning.

What was the problem with Jack, the guy who came in the side door, walked by the tabernacle, and took his seat in the front row?

He forgot to genuflect to the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle! Any time we pass in front of a tabernacle in a Catholic Church, we are supposed to genuflect on our right knee—out of reverence to Jesus Christ, who is present there body, blood, soul and divinity!

What about Jill, the woman who came in the front door, went over to the statues, lit a candle, and then walked out?

Well, her mistake was similar to Jack’s! Before we light a candle and seek the intercession of a saint, we should genuflect toward the tabernacle out of reverence to the one—Jesus Christ—who made the saints saints!

And believe me, that’s exactly what Mary and Joseph and Pius X and all the other canonized saints of the Church would tell us to do!

Jesus first!

The lack of reverence shown by Joe, the text-messager, Jane the gum-chewer and Justine the chronic-talker should be obvious. At least I hope their lack of reverence is obvious!

James, who always wears his weekday worst to Mass lacks reverence because he could easily make himself more presentable if he wanted to. If he were meeting the president or the governor or a famous celebrity, I’m sure he would dress a little better than he does for Jesus.

John who constantly comes in late and always leaves early lacks reverence because he’s not giving the Lord his best effort. But God deserves our best effort in everything—because he’s God.

Jerry, who comes to Communion with his mind on the pretty girl in front of him and who receives the Holy Eucharist without giving it a second thought, demonstrates a lack of reverence by not making the effort to his mind on Jesus, and by failing to make an act of reverence (like a head bow) before he receives.

Jacob’s lack of reverence might not be so obvious, but it’s present nonetheless. It’s present in his attitude. He’s there at Mass each Sunday only out of obligation, not because he recognizes the deep need he has for God and his saving grace.

Isaiah and Peter were just the opposite, weren’t they? Because of the incredible reverence and awe they had toward the Lord, they were extremely conscious of their need for forgiveness and salvation.

Today, at this Mass—and especially after Communion when we return to our pew to pray—let us ask the Lord to give us a spirit of reverence—deep reverence.

Because if we learn to be reverent toward Jesus in here—the Jesus who is present in his Word and in the Eucharist—we will in all likelihood become more reverent toward the Jesus out there: the Jesus who is present in the people we live with and work with and interact with every day.