Saturday, October 29, 2016

Coming down from the sycamore tree - a homily

Here is a draft for my homily this weekend, 29- 30 October, 2016, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, Ames, Iowa, on my first visit back after my ordination as a permanent deacon for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

The readings are: Wisdom 11:22 – 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19: 1-10

First of all, on behalf of our pastor, Padre German Navarro, and all the members of the parish of Dulce Nombre, we want to thank you for your support.  We know and, as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians,

We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.

But I come today to share the Gospel with you.

 In some ways I feel like Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel – short of stature in a place where he probably never expected he would be. Zacchaeus, a man of power and influence and wealth, found himself in a tree, a place that probably made him look like a fool.

On July 15, I was ordained a permanent deacon for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. For a little more than nine years I had served as a lay missionary, serving mostly in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, St. Thomas’s sister parish. I never expected to be ordained a deacon and I never expected to be serving in Honduras. I had to leave my comfort zone – to go to Honduras and now to be a deacon.

Before I left for Honduras in June 2007, I served for almost twenty-three years on the staff of St. Thomas – in campus ministry and in the charity, justice, and peace ministry. It’s good to be here on Homecoming Weekend, for this is for me a sort of homecoming. Saint Thomas formed me and prepared me for my ministry in Honduras. Many parishioners – both students and residents challenged me and helped me to become more present to the poor, moving me from a heady approach to faith and justice to a down to earth, get your hands dirty, faith. It’s not easy, but it brings great joy. They helped me get out of my tree so that I could sit at the table of the Lord.

Zacchaeus had to move out of his comfort zone and so he climbed up a tree to see Jesus. Sometimes we have to move to a different place in order to see Jesus.

But once accepted by Jesus, Zacchaeus was challenged to change his whole way of thinking and living. He had to turn from his concern for wealth and power and influence. He had to go up into a sycamore tree and come down from a position of power and authority. And he did it – not just the minimal, but he returned to those he wronged more than he needed to.

It was a conversion – something that we all need. For Zacchaeus and for us who are not poor, conversion means sharing, living with justice, turning from all that keeps us from God and from others, turning away from all profits of injustice. And it means accepting the invitation of Christ to let him sit at our table. To let him come to our house and visit their homes:  conversion means dining with Jesus – and with other sinners, and with the poor.

This conversion brings joy, since it frees us from the constraints of power, of wealth.

What does this tell us about God?

      In the first reading from the book of Wisdom we hear of a God who love all:
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made

The love of God has no borders.

In the Gospel we see that God wants to spend time in our homes – no matter who we are.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” And we all are, in some way, lost. And so he comes not as a prize for the righteous but as medicine for the sick and sinful.

The love of Christ is not something that is experienced from a distance. Jesus comes and sits among us – and we are called to sit at the table of the poor. Money is good and important – but being present is essential. As Pope Francis said just a few days ago,

Donations are generous and thus, one can contribute to alleviate the suffering of many. This form of charity is important, but, perhaps, it does not involve us directly.…. it’s very different [when] we are no longer before an image but we are involved personally. There is no longer any distance between me and him or her, and I feel challenged. Poverty in the abstract does not challenge us, but it makes us think, it makes us cry, but when we see poverty in the flesh of a man, of a woman, of a child, this challenges us! And because of this, we have that habit of fleeing from the needy, of not getting close to them, of falsifying somewhat the reality of the needy with fashionable habits to distance ourselves from it.

Our calling then is not only help the poor but be present with them, in some way or another. For the poor can teach us. Let me share one example.

This month I witnessed an extraordinary event in our parish of Dulce Nombre. Seventy-four parishioners left their homes for a week to be missionaries in other villages in the parish. They went without cellphones and without money. The villages provided them with housing and food and provided them with guides so that they could visit as many homes as possible.

They returned for the closing Mass, full of joy. They told of people who had been alienated from the church or who had let their base communities fall apart. A few persons they visited told the missionaries that they were glad to see Catholics at their door – they are so accustomed to encountering Jehovah’s Witnesses and fundamentalists. A few missionaries noted that they not only visited Catholics, but also evangelicals – even a few pastors – any of whom received them well.

They went not to convert people with words or arguments. They went, in the spirit of Pope Francis’ culture of encounter, to witness to the Reign of God in the world! They were there to be with people and to show them by their presence what God means. They invited themselves to others’ houses as Jesus went to the house of Zaccheus.

For me, that is what mission is – being present with people – training catechists, most of whom have less than four years of formal education; working with an association of small coffee farmers whose coffee many of you have bought; visiting the sick and the aged and burying the dead, including a thirty-one year old delegate of the Word and two people who were murdered this week.

I have encountered the Lord in these people – and we can encounter the Lord when we open our hearts and even our houses to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the unwed mother, the recently released prisoner – and when we enter their lives and houses

For we have a God of mercy, a God who breaks boundaries, who eats with sinners, who invites sinners to come down and open their houses to him.

In a few minutes we will celebrate the Eucharist, the presence of Christ Jesus in our midst. He invites us to eat at his table and wants to eat with us. Come and eat and then go and share at the table of the poor.

And come and be with us in Dulce Nombre. Thank you and God bless.

With Fr Jon Seda and Fr. Mark Murphy after Friday Mass


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