Like most people, I learn from experience. When I’m told not to touch the hot stove because it is hot and will burn me, I touch the hot stove. That teaches me what hot means. I usually do it more than once, just to be sure. In some ways I’ve become an expert on the three degrees of burns and the proper techniques for healing burns to reduce unsightly scarring.
Some people learn by heeding the warnings and admonitions of others. Still others learn by taking lessons from the mistakes made by persons such as myself. When some people hear about the tragedies, the mistakes, the “falling into error,” of the pioneers of life’s major blunders, they learn what or what not to do. That is a natural way to make sense out of life.
Weak and Foolish for Christ
It is safe to admit to you that I am flawed and considered by many who know me as, well, foolish. I take comfort in the writings of St. Paul who insists in 1 Corinthians 1:27-30 that “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”
Because of this great saint I remain committed to the calling of Deacon, “servant”, and eschew the strong desire to give in to those who encourage me to change.
Have I gone rogue? Perhaps – God forbid – in some self-righteous, stubborn way, I continue to move on, praying silently that Christ might come quickly (unless, of course, I win the Lotto, then all requests for the sound of the trumpet, His marvelous Voice calling from the clouds, are on hold). And I continue to give my once-a-month-homily focused on the hurting, bleeding, starving people who risk their lives in Northern New York’s icy winter, to come to Mass.
The Presider admonishes me monthly that my theology is “faulty” and “wrong”. God forbid that I would share anything faulty or wrong to hungry parishioners. After much soul-searching and finding that resigning is out of the question, since God has called foolish-and-weak me to slug on during this wonderful time of trial, I will continue to share my faults with my parishioners and with you.
Our Lord Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5: 44-45a). It is a command, not an option.
The Lesson of Forgiveness
Here is one instance of that. As a rogue preacher and former prison chaplain, I shared an experience (not a good one), to explain how I thought this Scripture made the most sense. I wanted to answer the question: How exactly do we pray for those who persecute us? How do we really “love” our enemies?
I facilitated a bible study for the Catholic inmates at a particular prison. One evening some of the men came late. I inquired as to why, and they began complaining about the officer who was mean and would not let them leave when they should have. I said to the men, “Let’s pray for him, for this is what our Lord commands.”
My prayer went something like this: “Lord, bless this officer with health, prosperity, and great vigor, not only in his life but in his family’s life as well. Give him joy in his heart, help him to find solace in this dark world, and…let him win the lotto, Lord.” (Yes, that really was my prayer.)
When I prayed that the officer should win the multi-million-dollar lotto, the inmates balked. They did not want to pray for the officer, let alone that he have a windfall like that. I explained that if the officer won the lotto, chances are he wouldn’t be at work the next day, or most likely, ever after that.
Rather than praying for those who persecute them, the inmates would rather have been the ones doing the persecuting. But that was not what our Lord was commanding. He was not inviting us to take revenge (pointed out clearly in the Gospel reading) but to pray in love. If we love someone, we care enough to want the very best for them. Am I wrong?
Correct or Corrected?
Yet, apparently, I was wrong when I preached that particular Gospel truth – at least according to the Presider. I was not permitted to use that vignette in the other two Masses I preached. Neither was I permitted to use the other illustration that came from the Gospel of Luke.
I addressed the passage of when Jesus heading toward Jerusalem, to His eventual Crucifixion. Because of His popularity, He sent messengers ahead of the entourage into the towns through which He would pass. They were to prepare for His entrance. The people in one Samaritan town were angry when they learned Jesus was going to the hated Jerusalem, and they refused to allow the Lord to enter.
James and his brother John asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven upon that town and consume them. But Jesus rebuked them and went through a different town.
I used this illustration to show that we should not be so ready to repay evil for evil, or a wrong with a wrong. This was something the Prophet Elijah did in 2 Kings 1:9-10. We are commanded to love. Just how do we do that?
Teaching the Truth in Love
My mistake, the Presider told me, was that I was not permitted to use other Scriptures when I preached the homily, but must stay with the readings allotted for my assigned day.
Why should I tell someone, “Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you,” and not give some cogent examples of how to do that? That’s like telling a new person in front of the balance beam in gym: “Jump up there and walk. Stop in the middle and do two back flips, landing on your feet!” No problem.
I preached that homily at a Saturday evening Mass. In the car, with the Presider, on the way to the next church in the morning, I was told not to use the illustrations in my homily at the next two Masses.
The Presider told me that he thought about standing up during the homily and stopping me from preaching because what I was saying was wrong.
During the fifteen-minute ride to the second Mass, I rewrote the homily in my head, leaving out the descriptions of one way to pray for those who persecute us, and what not to do when our egos are hurt. I left it up to the parishioners to figure that out on their own.
The Impact of Preaching
In my experience, the homilies that have resonated with my own struggles to carry my cross were the ones that left a mark on my soul. I can never forget the bishop who stepped down from the ambo and into the main aisle of the cathedral and told us, at the height of the priest sex abuse scandal that “Now is the best time to become a priest. Now is the best time to become a priest!” His message was clear and powerful. I believed him.
In my experience, the homilies that were most meaningful, that made me rethink my life’s course, were homilies that came from a man’s gut, from his own struggle with God’s Word.
I knew I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to reach people with the Word of God, the very Word that changed my life and brought me to the Holy Eucharist, Christ Himself. I wanted to pour myself out; to draw from my struggle; to bring light into the darkness. That is what the Church needs, doesn’t she?
Everyone enjoyed the very short homily. I do my best.