Sunday, February 25, 2018

People Often Ask More of Others than They Ask of Themselves; God Asks Much More of Himself than He Asks of Us

A still from the 1980's anti-drug ad

(Second Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 25, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 22: 1-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31-34; Matthew 9: 2-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2018]

I’m sure some of you will remember this anti-drug public service ad from television in the 1980s: 

It begins with the shot of a teenage boy in his bedroom.  The boy is reclining on his bed, with headphones on, happily listening to his stereo.  His father then barges into the room, obviously angry, with a box in his hand—a box that has various types of drug paraphernalia in it.  Dad turns off the stereo and says to the boy, “This yours?”  He replies, “No.”  His dad says, “Your mother said she found it in your closet.”  The boy suddenly gets really nervous, and starts to stumble over his words as he desperately tries to maintain his innocence.  Dad, of course, isn’t buying any of it.  Finally the father says, angrily, “Answer me!  Who taught you to do this stuff?”  His son shouts out, “YOU, ALRIGHT?  I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”

The ad ends with the announcer saying, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

That exchange between a father and his son illustrates a sad truth of this fallen world: People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

The father in that ad wanted his son to avoid drug abuse in his life—and that was great!  All good parents should have that desire for their children.  The problem was he expected more of his son than he expected of himself.  He held his child to a high standard—a very high moral standard.  But he refused to apply that very same standard to his own life. 

And his son called him on it—which is exactly what he should have done! 

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

This is something that we can all be guilty of from time to time.  We can have one set of expectations for our civil leaders, our religious leaders, our parents, our children, our siblings, our coworkers, etc., and another set of expectations—a much lower set of expectations—for ourselves.  Think, for example, of the many Catholic parents in this parish (and in every parish) who faithfully drop their children off for religious education classes every week, but who never come to Sunday Mass.  These parents ask their children to take their religion seriously, but they don’t do that themselves.  If they did, they’d never, ever miss Mass!

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

God, not surprisingly, is exactly the opposite—as today’s first reading from Genesis 22 makes crystal clear.  Here the Lord puts the patriarch Abraham to the test, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah.  Now, because we’re reading about this event 4,000 years after it actually happened, we know that God never intended to have Abraham kill his child; the test was about Abraham’s willingness to ‘let go’ and trust in the Lord.  God said to him, in effect, “Abraham, are you willing to let go of your son, Isaac?  He’s the child of the promise.  You waited 100 years to have him.  You love him deeply; you treasure him and the special bond you have with him more than anything else that you have in this life.  So, are you willing to let it all go?  Are you willing to let go of what’s most precious to you in this life and trust totally in me?”

Abraham was willing, thanks be to God—which is why we call him “our father in faith.”  His faith is supposed to be a model for ours.

This was certainly a teaching moment for Abraham—a very powerful and memorable teaching moment.  Through this very difficult test Abraham learned that God—the one, true God—was not like the false gods of the pagan world, like Molech, who demanded child sacrifice.  The one, true God made it clear to Abraham that he would never ask a man or woman to do such a thing.  He would never ask them to give up a child in that way.

BUT, OF COURSE, HE DID ASK IT OF HIMSELF!  Did you realize that?  What God would not ask of Abraham (or of any one of us), he asked—he demanded!—of himself.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” the Gospel of John tells us.  Or, as today’s second reading from Romans 8 puts it, “[God] … did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.”   That’s the good news!  So God’s message to us today is, “You don’t need to offer your children in sacrifice to me, because I’ve already offered my Son, Jesus Christ, in sacrifice for you—for the forgiveness of your sins; so that you might have eternal life.

The passion and death of Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic words of Abraham in this story.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we’re told in this text that when Abraham was walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son said to him, “Father, here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Abraham responded, “My son, God will provide the lamb.” 

Poor Abraham.  He probably responded as he did because he really didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps he said it because he was “hoping against hope” that God would, even at the last second, tell him he didn’t have to go through with the sacrifice.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

But there was a spiritual depth to Abraham’s response that he wasn’t aware of at the time.  Yes, God did supply the lamb that day to save Isaac—true enough; but that was only a foreshadowing of the Lamb the Lord would supply many hundreds of years later—his divine Son, Jesus Christ: the Lamb of God, whose passion and death would take away the sins of the world.

So the bottom line is this:

We human beings, in our weakness, often ask more of others than we do of ourselves.

God, on the other hand, by sending his Son into this world to suffer and die for our sins, has asked infinitely more of himself than he will ever ask of you or of me—or of any other human person.

And for that, my brothers and sisters, we should all be infinitely grateful!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Lesson on the Love of God from 'The 15:17 to Paris'

From left to right: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 18, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2018]

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone have known each other for most of their lives.  They met when they were students at Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks, California (near Sacramento).  Unfortunately they misbehaved quite a bit during their years at the school, and consequently each of them spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office.  But they all turned out okay, and after graduating from high school all three ended up joining different branches of the military.   In August of 2015, the three friends decided to meet in Europe for a little reunion and a well-deserved vacation.  It was during the course of that vacation—on August 21 to be exact—that these three American servicemen got on a train in Amsterdam that was bound for Paris.  They expected to have a relaxing, uneventful trip—but, as you know if you’ve seen the new Clint Eastwood-directed movie, The 15:17 to Paris, that’s not what they got!  What they got was a confrontation with a 25-year-old Moroccan terrorist, who had an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition on him.

Several people tried to stop the man when he initially attempted to take over the train, but they failed to do so.  Finally, when he had the opportunity, Spencer Stone jumped up out of his seat and ran down the aisle toward the terrorist, who immediately pointed his gun at Stone to shoot him.  However, the gun (by the grace of God) jammed, and Stone was able to tackle the man.  Then, with the help of his two friends and some others, he disarmed the terrorist and knocked him out.

They then tied him up and handed him over to the French authorities.

It’s hard to know how many lives these three brave men saved that day on that train from Amsterdam to Paris, but, in all likelihood it was a lot—given the fact that this guy had all those rounds of ammo on him!  And so it’s not surprising that the President of France awarded Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos that country’s highest decoration shortly after the event on the train took place, making them “Knights of the Legion of Honor”.

Of course, they were also hailed as heroes back here in the United States—and rightly so!

I mention this today because I think the sacrifice that these three servicemen made back in August of 2015 on that train to Paris, can help us to appreciate the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us 2,000 years ago on the cross of Mt. Calvary.

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone put their lives on the line to save other people—men and women and children whom they didn’t even know.  That was awesome.  But they also did what they did for themselves; they did what they did in order to save their own lives.  There was a personal motive as well as a sacrificial motive to their heroic actions that day.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The fact that they wanted to save themselves is a good thing; it doesn’t diminish what they did in any way, shape or form.  However, what it does do is to ELEVATE what Jesus Christ did for us by his incarnation, passion and death.  Jesus, remember, didn’t come into this world for himself and for his own personal gain.  He didn’t need to take on human flesh.  He didn’t need the spiritual benefits of his passion and death.  He didn’t need to have his sins forgiven (because he didn’t have any).  He didn’t need to be redeemed.  He didn’t need salvation.

Jesus had no “personal motive.”

Everything that he did in his earthly life; everything that he did in his 3 year ministry; everything that he did on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, he did totally and completely—100 percent—for us!   St. Peter says it perfectly in today’s second reading when he writes, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”

In that verse, of course, Jesus is “the righteous” and we are “the unrighteous”.  St. Peter is reminding us here that Jesus had nothing to gain in his divine personhood by being born into this world of the Virgin Mary and suffering and dying on the cross.  The “righteous one”, after all, was (and is) God, and God has no needs.  Jesus Christ did what he did out of pure, selfless love—for you, for me, for every human person.  Peter makes that clear in this verse.

The love of God is something that we should reflect on often in our lives, but especially during this holy season of Lent.  So I’ll close my homily today by giving you a suggestion on how to do that during the next 40 or so days.  First, go to the movies!  If you want to meditate deeply on the love of God this Lent, go to the movies sometime in the near future and see that film, The 15:17 to Paris.  It’s playing right now at Regal Cinemas in Stonington.  By the way, the really interesting thing about this movie is that Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone play themselves in it!  Director Clint Eastwood wanted historical accuracy in the film, so he basically had the three soldiers re-enact the event on camera with some actors.  That means the way it’s depicted on the screen is the way these three men remember it happening.

In that sense, at least, it’s not “just a movie”.

Then, when you’re finished watching the film, spend some time in prayer—either in a quiet place at home or maybe at the adoration chapel at Immaculate.  And during that prayer time think about what you saw in the movie: how these three men risked their lives to save themselves and the other passengers on that train—especially Spencer Stone, who would have certainly been killed if the terrorist’s gun hadn’t jammed like it did.  Imagine how grateful you would have been to him and his two friends for the great things they had done for you, to save your earthly life.

Then spend some time (some quality time) thinking about Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, and the even GREATER things—the perfectly selfless things—he did for you, to save you from sin and Satan and eternal death, and to give you the kingdom of heaven for an inheritance!  You might want to read one of the Passion stories in the gospels to help you in this regard.

If you do this meditation well, you will definitely end up grateful.  You will be deeply grateful for the sacrificial love of the three servicemen in the film—but you will be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL for the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Which, of course, is exactly what you should be.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lent: It’s about Love

(Ash Wednesday 2018: This homily was given on February 14, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joel 2: 12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6: 2; Matthew 6: 1-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2018]

It’s meaningful (and providential) that Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day this year—because if there’s one thing that most of the world is totally mixed-up about it’s the meaning of love.  Love, contrary to popular belief, is not a synonym for sex.  It’s not a reward for being good (or, at least, it shouldn’t be).  It’s not an emotion (although when we love we sometimes might experience good feelings).

Real love is an act of the will.  Real love is a decision.  It’s a decision to desire and to seek the good for another person.  Parents, for example, are said to love their children when they seek what’s truly good for them.  They love their children when they selflessly make the sacrifices that help their children to grow spiritually, emotionally and physically.

Real love, therefore, is not selfish; it’s selfless.  If you truly love someone you put that person before yourself (as good parents put their children before themselves, and their children’s needs before their own).

Real love is also patient.  If you truly love another person you’ll make every effort to be patient with them when they don’t fully meet your expectations (which will probably be quite often!).

Real love is forgiving.  If you truly love another person, you’ll be willing to forgive them when they disappoint you or offend you in some way (which they will certainly do—at least from time to time—because they’re not perfect).

And finally, real love is self-sacrificial.  Real love is about giving yourself, in care and service, to others.  As Jesus told us, “Greater love than this nobody has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

St. Valentine was a man who demonstrated this kind of love in his life.  He lived in Rome in the third century, and it was there that he gave the ultimate witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the Church through his martyrdom.

So what does this have to do with Ash Wednesday and Lent?

Well, this is precisely what Lent is about (or, at least, this is what Lent is supposed to be about!).  Love.  Our disciplines and sacrifices during this holy season are supposed to help us to grow in our love for God and one another.  That’s their purpose. 

Their purpose is not to make us miserable and ornery! 

This, by the way, is why getting to confession during Lent is so important!  Confession either strengthens—or re-establishes—our bond of love with the Lord.  Real love, as I said earlier, is forgiving.  God, in his great love for us, wants to forgive us!  He wants to forgive us more than we want to be forgiven!  He wants to forgive us for every sin we’ve ever committed.

But we have to ask for that forgiveness!  He will not force it on us.  He respects our freedom to much to do that.

So today, on this Ash Wednesday morning, we ask St. Valentine to pray for us—that we will have a good Lent, a fruitful Lent, a love-filled Lent: 40 days of growing in our love for God and others that will make us better men, better women, better disciples of Jesus Christ when Lent is over—and for the rest of our lives.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Job’s Transforming Encounter with God

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 4, 2018, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Job 7: 1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23; Matthew 1: 29-39.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2018]

One day a reporter was interviewing an 80-year-old woman who had just gotten married for the fourth time.  Sadly, her first three husbands had all passed away.  The reporter asked her questions about her life, about what it felt like to be marrying again at 80, and then about her new husband’s occupation.

“He’s a funeral director,” she answered.

The reporter thought to himself, “Well, that’s interesting.”

He then asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling him a little bit about her first three husbands and what each of them had done for a living.  She explained that she had first married a banker when she was in her 20s, a circus ringmaster when she was in her 40s, a preacher when she was in her 60s, and now, in her 80s, a funeral director.

The reporter said to her, “Wow, that’s amazing—four men with such diverse careers!”

She smiled and said, “Well, you see, I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go.”

Fr. Mac from St. Vincent’s and Our Lady of Victory sent me that a few years ago.  I always knew I’d be able to use it in a homily someday!

I use it this morning because even though it’s an amusing story, it does have a very serious background.  That 80-year-old newlywed had three major losses (that we know of) to deal with in her life, namely, the banker, the ringmaster and the pastor.  But I’m sure she also had to deal with many other losses during her 80 years on planet earth: the loss of other family members and friends to death; the loss of some of her independence; the loss of her ability to physically do certain things; maybe even the loss of some of her cognitive abilities. 

But at least these losses were spread out over a number of years (actually a number of decades).  Poor old Job suffered all of his losses in a single day!

Most of us, I’m sure, know at least the basic outline of Job’s story.  The Bible tells us that he was a deeply religious man, “who feared God and avoided evil”.  He was also quite wealthy.  And for many years he led a very happy life; that is, until the day when he literally lost almost everything!  First, his herds and flocks were either destroyed or stolen; then his ten children died when a house collapsed on them during a severe windstorm; and, finally, he was afflicted with a terrible disease that left his entire body covered with painful boils.

After all these disasters the only one Job has left in his family is Mrs. Job, but she proves to be no help at all.  At one point early in the story she actually tells her husband to “Curse God and die.” (Obviously, Mrs. Job never received the “Wife of the Year Award”!) 

Three of Job’s closest friends then come on the scene “to give him sympathy and comfort.”  However, all they end up giving him is a lot of bad advice, more aggravation—and probably a really big headache (which was the last thing the poor guy needed at the time!).

It’s in the midst of all this intense suffering that Job utters the famous words we heard in today’s first reading: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of a hireling?  He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages.  So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. . . . My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”

Finally, Job goes right to the top.  After he hears from his friends, who basically tell him that he must have done something wrong to bring all this evil upon himself, Job cries out to God and presses him for an explanation.  He knows he hasn’t sinned in a serious way, so he wants to know why the Lord has allowed him to experience all these trials.

And God responds!  Job calls, and the Lord shows up.  But instead of answering Job’s question, God asks some questions of his own!  He says, “Where were you, Job, when I created the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its size; do you know?  Who stretched out the measuring line for it?”  And on and on the Lord goes for four chapters.  His basic message to Job is, “Do you think you’re smarter than I am?  Do you understand creation and everything in it?  Can you make an eagle fly or give a horse its strength?  These are things that are beyond your capacity to understand.  And so is your present situation.”

The final chapter of the book then begins with Job saying these words to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.  I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.”  Then comes what I would call the “key line” of the book.  Job says, “I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you.  Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.”

“I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you.”

Job’s experience of loss—his terrible, excruciating experience of loss and suffering—became the occasion of a life-changing encounter with God.

Which is the point I want to drive home today in this homily.

Now don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that Job’s encounter with the Lord took away all his pain and made him forget about his children and his other losses.  No, I’m saying that in the midst of all that suffering, Job had the opportunity to meet God in a personal and powerful way—and he did.

And he was greatly blessed because of that encounter.  It changed him!  It didn’t change God; it changed Job.

Many people think of suffering as an obstacle to meeting the Lord and having a close relationship with him, but Job shows us otherwise.  Job shows us that suffering can actually be the occasion for starting, or renewing, or strengthening our relationship with God.

Some of you know this, I’m sure, from your own experience.  How many people have either come to Christ, or come back to Christ, or deepened their faith in Christ after they’ve experienced a terrible tragedy in their lives?

I’ve seen that kind of thing happen lots of times over the years.

So the bottom line is this:

Many people suffer—like Job did.
Many people suffer while living a good, moral life—like Job did.
Many people suffer with little or no human support—like Job did.
Many people question God and his ways—like Job did.
But relatively few people encounter God in their suffering—like Job did.

Let’s pray today that we will be among those few.