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


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

God of life, not of death - a homily

This morning I presided and preached at a Celebration of the Word with Communion in Pasquingual for the eternal rest of a couple who had been brutally killed with machetes on Sunday. Here is a translation of my notes for the homily. I improvised a bit, taking into account the presence of the mother of the woman and other family members. The readings were Genesis 4: 1-15, Psalm 130, and Luke 23: 26-46.

On behalf of the parish, I would like to extend our condolences to all the family and friends of the couple who have experienced this brutal killing.

Every death brings sadness and tears but these deaths have brought us a deep sadness, many tears, and perhaps some fear.

The first reading tells us how the blood of the Abel cried out to the Lord, rising up to heaven. So too the blood of Hector Ricardo and Maria Pedrina cries out.

In the face of this we have to cry; tears are necessary.

But death is not the final word; the final word is Life – Jesus.

Jesus is not a God who remains distant from human concerns. He became human and suffered a brutal death on the cross. But, even more, he handed over his whole life to give all of us life.

Though Jesus suffered for us, death is not the final word, Jesus, risen, is. He is a Word that is Life, Forgiveness, Reconciliation.

The final word is not a word of death, of vengeance, or even of resignation. It is the Word of New Life.

God does not wish the death of anyone – not of those who have been killed, nor even the death of their killer or killers. In Genesis God puts a special mark on Cain, so that he is not killed.

No to vengeance. Yes to forgiveness. But forgiveness ought to bring a resolution to change, to reconciliation.

We have to put aside the spiral, the cycle of violence and vengeance and begin a new way of living, a life of forgiveness, reconciliation, and solidarity.

Death violence, vengeance have to stop.

And where do they stop, where have they stopped? At the foot fo the Corss.

On the Cross, Jesus broke the spiral of vengeance: “Father, forgive them…” And so Jesus offers us the Life of forgiveness.

Thus, if you have in your heart a desire for vengeance for these terrible killings, leave your desire at the foot of the Cross.

If you are filled with sadness, leave your sadness and tears in the lap of the Virgin Mary, who held the lifeless body of Jesus on her lap after the crucifixion.

If you are afraid, leave your fear in the heart of Jesus, meek and humble of heart.

If the killers are here today and hear my voice, come to the Cross, asking forgiveness and mercy, and converting!

Let us put all at the foot of the Cross.

But let us remember that the final word is Life.

Let us seek reconciliation. Let us seek solidarity. Let us seek forgiveness.

Let us seek forgiveness, but no resignation. Real forgiveness offers us – and offers even the killers – the possibility of living in a different, new way: a life of solidarity, a life of forgiveness, a life of reconciliation, a life of justice.

In the name of God, I call out to you:

Let the violence cease.

Let us cut the spiral of violence.

Let impunity stop.
If there is anyone who knows who are responsible for this crime, denounce them to the authorities. But don’t go alone. Perhaps the whole village should go to provide strength and courage to those who denounce the perpetrators of these and other crimes.

Let us live the solidarity of Christ, who shares our sufferings. Let us aid the family and be with them in this terrible time.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Parish Holy Year Pilgrimage

Yesterday, Saturday, October 22, five buses and one car from the parish of Dulce Nombre traveled more than three hours to the shrine of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of the Remedies) in Tomalá, in the south of the department of Lempira.

Tomalá is one of the pilgrimage sites in our diocese during this Holy Year of Mercy, with a designated Holy Door. 

Many of us got up at 4:00 am of earlier to catch the buses. 

I went with Padre German in his truck, leaving from Dulce Nombre about 6:30 am. The ride was uneventful – thanks be to God – but with some beautiful landscapes.

At the entrance to the town of Tomalá, close to three hundred of us got out of our vehicles in order to travel the last kilometer of foot.

I reflected with them on this passage of Pope Francis’s Misericordiae Vultus, The Face of Mercy, ¶ 14:
The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim traveling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.
We walked to the church, a beautiful combination of young and old, from many different parts of the parish. I was especially impressed by the large number of young people from several of the towns and villages.

When we arrived at the door of the church, Padre German led us in prayer and then we entered the church

– following the Book of the Gospels (which I was carrying). 

When we had filed the church, we recited the creed. Then Padre German and the pastor of Tomalá heard confessions for about 90 minutes. During that time, others gathered around the altar of Our Lady of Remedies to pray or had lunch or visited the spring of the Virgin.

Mass concluded our celebration.

After Mass, many of us made our way to the Spring of the Virgin, El Posito de la Virgen, a miraculous spring not far from the church.

People come from near and far to drink from the spring or bathe in its waters (in two separate places). Some take water back home, seeking God’s healing through the intercession of Mary.

I visited the spring many years ago, in the company of the mayor at that time. He told me how someone fenced in the spring, planning to charge people for admission. The spring retreated!

When I visited I put my right hand in the waters, not thinking of anything in particular. Right before coming to Honduras I had broken a bone in that hand while on a parish work trip to New Orleans. It healed but there was an almost constant ache. A few days after putting my hand in the water I realized that the ache was gone. Thanks be to God and His mother.

Those who know me realize that I am not credulous, given to believing or expecting great miracles. I am much more comfortable with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who said, “The miracle is to walk the earth.”

But I did experience a small miracle and thus I hope that I can become more open to the signs of God’s love, the miracles of everyday life, and that I can be part of God’s miracles of love and justice and mercy here on earth.

Most of the busses left about 3:00 but we didn’t leave until about an hour later. One bus had major mechanical problems and they worked about an hour repairing it.

We stayed behind. Padre German didn’t want to leave them. He also decided to drive back cautiously, making sure that our car was behind the busses – in case there was an emergency of some sort.

We arrived in Dulce Nombre about 7:35 and  got home to Plan Grande after 8:30 pm – tired but filled with peace.

It was a beautiful day, experiencing the mercy of God and the faith of the people I work with.