Thursday, November 25, 2004

Thanksgiving: A Day To Take Your Gratitude To A Deeper Level

(Thanksgiving Day, 2004: This homily was given on November 25, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 17: 11-19.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thanksgiving 2004]

Today is a day to go deeper.

Every day is a day to give thanks (or at least it SHOULD be; gratitude should be part of the very fabric of our lives as Christians), but all too often our thanksgiving can be rather superficial—at least I’ve found that mine can be. And so, on the 4th Thursday of November each year, we are encouraged as Americans to go a little deeper, and to reflect on some of the more important reasons why we should be grateful: grateful to God (first and foremost), and grateful to the people who are God’s chosen instruments in our lives.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean when I talk about “going deeper.” Each year at Thanksgiving time, our diocesan newspaper, The Providence Visitor, sponsors an art and essay contest for young people. The prizewinners are named in the Visitor’s pre-Thanksgiving edition. (That edition came out last Thursday.)

One of those who received an award this year was Russell Laudone, a sixth grader at St. Pius X School. Let me read to you now his brief essay, and then offer a comment on it:

“My name is Russell. I am a 12-year-old boy and I have a unique kind of family. My brother and I are adopted. I am grateful for my adoptive parents because they take wonderful care of me and my brother. I am also lucky because my brother will take me places like Blockbusters. I have 13 great cousins. Some of them live near me and some live far away, but they’re always willing to play. I also have a neighborhood filled with lots of friends.
“I am most thankful that my natural parents loved me enough not to get an abortion. They gave me up for adoption because they could not take care of me. I will always love them for making that decision. I thank God for letting me be a part of this family. I really do love them all.”

That essay is only two paragraphs long, but it says a great deal.

Now the interesting thing is, Russell could have stopped writing when he came to the end of the first paragraph; it was not necessary that he write the second. Once he had spoken about his adoptive parents, his brother, his cousins and his friends, he could have made the choice to put down his pen. He could have legitimately ended his expression of gratitude at that point.

But he didn’t. He took it to the next level. He went a little deeper by reflecting on his birth, and on the courageous decision his natural parents made in giving him life! Because, as we all know—and as he knows—his parents could have made the decision to terminate his existence in the womb (that was a legal option they had). And I’m sure there were some who counseled his mother and father to do just that. But, to their great credit, his parents chose life even in the midst of difficult and emotionally painful circumstances.

Because young Russell Laudone took his reflection to a deeper level in this way, his gratitude has increased—and so has his joy. That’s very clear from the way his essay ends: “I thank God for letting me be a part of this family. I really do love them all.”

In today’s Gospel we heard about 10 lepers whose bodies were completely healed by Jesus. Yet only one returned to say “Thank you.” Hopefully all of them were grateful that Jesus had made them well, but only one took his gratitude to a deeper level such that he was inspired to go back to our Lord and speak with him. To this man Jesus said, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

With those words this healed man learned a valuable lesson that his 9 ex-leper friends didn’t. He learned that his faith was primary! He learned that his faith was even more important than his physical healing; that his relationship with Jesus on the inside was more important than the condition of his body on the outside.

Hopefully he took that lesson to heart; hopefully he allowed it to guide him during the rest of his life on this earth.

If he did, then there can be little doubt where he is right now; there can be little doubt where he went when he died.

The bottom line is this: “going a little deeper” with your gratitude always brings insights and always has benefits—sometimes eternal ones!

Today the Lord invites us to do this with respect to our own lives. And a great time to start is when we go back to our pews after we receive Communion at this Mass! Since Jesus is with us in a unique way at that moment, our prayer to him should be, “Lord, open my eyes! Help me to see your blessings more clearly. Take my gratitude to a deeper level.”

When that prayer is answered—and I believe it will be if we continue to pray it daily—then we will be blessed in the same way that the healed leper was blessed; in the same way that young Russell Laudone was blessed.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Lesson of the 2004 Red Sox Season: Faithfulness + Perseverance = Joy!

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 14, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Malachi 3: 19-20a; 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-third Sunday of the Year 2004]

It’s no secret that Boston Red Sox fans have been overjoyed since October 27th at about 11:30 PM, when the team finally won the World Series after an 86 year drought. Actually, the rejoicing began when the Sox defeated the New York Yankees in game 7 of the American League Championship Series (avenging last year’s crushing defeat), but it wasn’t capped off until the final out of their 4-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series itself.

And yet, the joy that individual Red Sox fans have experienced in the last few weeks has varied (I hope you realize that); it has not been constant. And it’s varied according to two very important factors: faithfulness and perseverance. Those who have experienced the deepest, most profound joy since the World Series ended, are those who have exhibited both of these qualities—both of these virtues—in their lives as fans.

Take the first: faithfulness. I have a friend who was once a Red Sox fan, but who changed his loyalties many years ago when he was just a young boy. He had gone to Fenway Park to see a game, and he asked Rick Burleson—who was the Red Sox shortstop at the time—for an autograph. Burleson said No. Well, my friend was so hurt—and so angry—that he not only stopped being a Sox fan at that moment, he went so far as to transfer his support to that team from New York known as “the Evil Empire.” And he’s remained a fan of that team to this day.

For obvious reasons, he didn’t have very much joy in his heart the other night when the Red Sox finally won. And that lack of joy was directly related to his lack of faithfulness.

Which brings us to the second virtue, perseverance. Let’s face it, even the most faithful Sox fan has been tempted over the years to throw in the towel and give up hope that this team would ever win a world championship. Here, for example, are a few of the more noteworthy moments of Red Sox history when incredible perseverance was required:

In 1967, the Sox took the Cardinals to game 7 of the World Series, but lost that final contest, 7-2. The “Impossible Dream” year came to a sad end.

In 1975, Carlton Fisk hit a home run in the 12th inning of game 6 of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Without question, that was one of the most exciting—and emotionally draining—games in baseball history. But—once again—they dropped game 7.

In 1978 the Sox blew a 14 game lead to that Evil Empire team, and were forced into a one game playoff with them at the end of the year. Enter Bucky Dent; goodbye Red Sox.

Last year, Aaron Boone’s home run sent the Yankees back into the World Series and the Sox back home once again.

And, last—but certainly not least—we have the total team implosion of game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets (no, it was not only Bill Buckner’s fault!). That one, I must admit, almost exhausted my perseverance. It definitely took my perseverance—and patience—to the limit! I will never forget being face-down on the floor of my mother’s living room with my head buried in the carpet, pounding the floor with my fists and yelling, “I can’t believe it; I can’t believe it!”

Oh yes, Fr. Ray, believe it!

But I never gave up completely; and, thankfully, neither did many other Sox fans. For us, the joy was incredible when victory finally came to our team a few weeks ago.

I share this will you today, not only to extol the 2004 Boston Red Sox (even though I’m very happy to do that!); I also share it to make a spiritual point.

For followers of the local New England baseball team, faithfulness plus perseverance brought joy—great joy.

With respect to our Catholic Christian faith, the same is true: faithfulness plus perseverance brings joy: a measure of joy here on earth, but—even more importantly—joy in the kingdom of God when our time on this earth is finished. And that eternal joy is more than anything we can imagine! It’s better than winning a million World Series championships.

Our readings this weekend focus our attention on this foundational truth of our Catholic faith.

Today’s first reading from Malachi 3 reminds us that there will be a definite end to this world as we know it; it also reminds us that those who are unfaithful—and who die in that state—will endure eternal punishment, while those who are faithful to the Lord—and who die in that state—will experience eternal glory: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

The message here is both simple and practical: What we do on this earth matters! How we treat one another on this earth matters! That was one of the clear messages of this year’s election, was it not?—Morality matters! (At least to some Americans it does.)

In today’s second reading from 2 Thessalonians 3, St. Paul talks about his own faithfulness and perseverance. These two virtues made him a role model for the Thessalonians and for many others in the early Church. As he says there, “We wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us.”

Could we say something similar about ourselves? Could each of us say to the people we live and work with: “Imitate me. If you want to know what it means to be a faithful, persevering Catholic, then hang around with me for awhile and follow the example I give you.”

That’s definitely a challenging question to ponder. At least it’s challenging for me!

And finally, in this Gospel passage from Luke 21, Jesus deals with two of the many dangers to faithfulness and perseverance that we experience in this life. The first danger is that of “false messiahs.” This includes not only the leaders of false religions; it can also signify the things of this world that sometimes pull us away from Christ: material possessions, power, fame, pleasure, etc.

The second danger Jesus deals with here is suffering—specifically the suffering that comes from being attacked for your Catholic Christian faith. Let me tell you, in recent weeks I’ve definitely come to a deeper understanding of what this is all about. For defending Christian moral principles in the public square, I’ve been verbally attacked even at the gym in the middle of a workout. Thank God I had just finished running on the treadmill; at least I could talk and defend myself! I wasn’t gasping for breath!

Make no mistake about it, it’s not easy to stand firm with Christ and his Church these days—but neither is it impossible! I’m very encouraged when I hear about some of our teenagers who are not afraid to defend their Catholic beliefs in their high school classes, in the midst of almost total opposition from their peers. That takes guts! That takes a persevering spirit! To you young people who are willing to do that, I say, “Remember the words of Jesus at the end of this Gospel: ‘By your perseverance you will secure your lives.’

For true Red Sox fans, faithfulness and perseverance are reaping happy dividends after more than 8 decades of heartache and disappointment. Faithfulness and perseverance have brought great joy—and have led to a celebration that continues in some parts of Red Sox Nation, even as we speak. May that experience encourage us all—even the Yankee fans in the congregation—to be faithful and persevering in living our Catholic faith, because what’s at stake in this lifelong contest is an eternal prize, and a joy that will go on for much, much longer than a single baseball season.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Do You Want To Know The Truth, Or Do You Simply Want To Win Arguments?

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 7, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 20: 27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday of the Year 2004]

Were they trying to discover the truth, or were they simply trying to win an argument?

That question emerges when you know the background of today’s Gospel story from Luke 20.

So here’s the background:

At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (two groups or sects within Judaism) disagreed about a number of important issues: how many books there were in the Bible, the immortality of the soul, the existence of angels, and the resurrection of the dead, to name but a few.

Regarding the resurrection, the Pharisees said Yea while the Sadducees said Nay. The Pharisees accepted the idea that people would rise in some manner after they physically died—they considered it to be a fundamental teaching of the Jewish faith—while the Sadducees rejected the notion completely.

And so one day a group of Sadducees decided to approach Jesus to see where he stood on the matter. They began by quoting something Moses had said in the Book of Deuteronomy (a book that both they and the Pharisees accepted as part of Scripture): “If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.”

Then they set up a very interesting case-study. It concerned a woman who married a man and his six brothers without ever having any children. They obviously thought this extreme example would discredit the Pharisees by making it clear that the resurrection was a ridiculous teaching.

When they were finished, they said to Jesus, “At the resurrection whose wife will [this] woman be, since all seven brothers married her?”

Jesus responded by making it clear that life after death is qualitatively different than life on this side of the grave. On this side of the grave marriage is necessary to propagate the species (this, by the way, is one reason why marriage can only be between a man and a woman: “Adam and Eve” not “Adam and Steve”). But after the resurrection people will not die anymore, hence marriage won’t be necessary any longer.

Jesus ended by quoting Moses again (knowing how much the Sadducees loved and respected Moses). He noted that in the Book of Exodus, Moses referred to God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” the implication being that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still alive somewhere. But all three of those men had lived and died hundreds of years before Moses! Hence, Jesus was saying that Moses must have believed in the resurrection also, if he believed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still among the living.

That’s where the story ends. The next line of the text says that some of the scribes commended Jesus for his response (one of the few times they actually agreed with our Lord!); and then it says “they [i.e., the Sadducees] no longer dared to ask [Jesus] anything.”

This means that, in all likelihood, they were not convinced by what Jesus had said! They did not change their minds on the matter; they continued to live in error. Which leads me to wonder: When they came to Jesus that day, were they trying to discover the truth, or were they simply trying to win an argument? Did they really want to understand the truth about the resurrection, or were they simply trying to score a victory against their arch-rivals, the Pharisees?

Because of the way the story ends, I think it’s clear that their minds were closed from the start. That’s why the words of Jesus had little or no effect on them.

I mention this today because I’m convinced that there are many people in our culture right now who are just like the Sadducees in this story. That is to say, they are much more concerned with winning arguments, than they are with knowing the truth.

I’ll give you two quick examples.

The first one concerns the recent presidential debates. When each of those debates was over, the media pundits focused almost exclusively on one question: Who won? That was the issue that interested them the most: Who won—Bush or Kerry?

And so they spent hours and hours and hours talking about polling data! Their focus was not: Which of these men, if either, was telling the truth? To them, that was a minor concern—although it should have been their first concern.

The second example concerns my recent “debates” in the Westerly Sun on the issues of Catholic voting and so-called “gay marriage.” I’m quite certain that for many readers of our local newspaper, the primary question was, “Who got the better of these exchanges? Was it Father Ray, Deacon Fran, and those on their side—or was it those who offered opposing views?”

But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “What is the truth, and who is telling it?”

Perhaps the problem is that too many of us have confused these two realities: winning an argument, and telling the truth. We presume that if someone is victorious in a debate or wins an argument, it’s a sign that what they’ve told us is true.

Not necessarily!

In fact, sometimes the person who tells the truth is the very same person who loses the argument decisively! And there’s no better example of that than Jesus Christ himself!

In a certain sense you could say that Jesus “lost the argument” he had with his enemies during the course of his 3 year earthly ministry. His enemies, of course, included these Sadducees, and also the Pharisees and scribes. As we know from reading the Gospels, these men were almost always contradicting the things our Lord said. And because Jesus lost this 3-year “argument” with the religious leaders of the Jews, public opinion turned against him. The end result was the event Mel Gibson portrayed so powerfully in his film earlier this year.

The end result was the crucifixion!

But the fact that Jesus was defeated by his enemies and was nailed to a cross did not mean he was a liar!
He still told the truth; in fact, he himself WAS the Truth!

In your life, do you want to know the truth—do you want to accept and embrace the truth—or do you simply want to win arguments?

From today’s Gospel, we know how the Sadducees would have answered that question.

How do you answer it?