Farewell Homily at Prince of Peace

'Lost and Found' by Greg Olsen. Used with Permission. http://www.GregOlsen.com
“Lost and Found” by Greg Olsen. Used with Permission. http://www.GregOlsen.com

November 20, 2022

November 3, 2019

Hear audio of this homily

Luke 19:1-10

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho
intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”

I know some of you may not know this, but I was raised in East Texas on a farm. I know I probably haven’t said that before, but I am sharing it with you now. Our house was not very far from the Neches River, about 3 or 4 miles as the crow flies. And the Neches is just one of those slow-moving rivers. It runs a serpentine route to the Gulf of Mexico. And so, because we lived close to the Neches river, we also lived very close to the edge of The Big Thicket. which meant that we had a lot of little thickets running around our area.

Now if you don’t know what a thicket is, for those of you especially somewhere around my age, Uncle Remus had the story of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox. Br’er Rabbit was always a lot smarter than Br’er Fox, and he begged Br’er Fox not to throw him into the briar patch. That’s kiinda what a thicket is. except for that fact that its a bunch of limbs that grow very close together in these very stiff bushes and it makes basically an impenetrable wall.

Now my friends and I , when I was about 13 or 14 years old, went back to the river and camped on a sand bar so we could fish in the river. We could also fish in an old horseshoe lake that formed when the river had overflowed in the past and formed this lake. It had a bunch of fish in it, which made it an easy place to catch fish. We could also swim which we did a lot. Now, some of us thought we were better swimmers than we were, and I caught myself being caught in the middle of the swift current of the river when I swam out a little bit too far. I was carried down the river for about a mile and I was finally able to get out on a sandbar, and started to make my way back to where the camp was. Now, if I followed the river and its circuitous route that it had, I could have walked miles to get a mile. So instead, I decided to just cut across country. And so what happened was, it brought me up to the back of these thickets. And, I don’t know if you know this, but – do you know why cowboys invented chaps? Because they had to herd cattle in these thickets. And so, any reasonably bright person would know that you have to have protective clothing before you go into one of the thickets. And as I stood there in my bare feet, my cut-off jeans. and no shirt, I was thinking to myself, “I’m really too tired to walk all the way around the thicket, so, I’m just going to make my way through here.” And so, after thinking for a little bit, I just pushed my way in. And I worked back and forth trying to find the least amount of bushes and everything that I could. and then finally I came to the edge. And as I came to the edge, and I stepped out, I realized the sweet freedom, and the fact that I was a couple of feet further down from where I actually went in.

Now a wise person, at this point, understanding wisdom and intellect – wisdom and knowledge are different – a wise person would have walked around at that point and gone back to the camp. That would have been the best choice. Unfortunately, it was not my choice. I actually looked, and I saw, I had patches of skin on my torso that had not been cut, and was not bleeding at the time. So, why not try again?

I was smart. I told you guys time and time again, my good looks are only exceeded by my keen intellect, right? So, I was smart this time. I went and I climbed a tree, so I could look and spot where exactly the camp was so I could head that direction. And I was trying to find a path through there and so I had to scoot a little further out on the limb – which broke. Here’s the great thing about the woods, the forest, the grass is so thick and so soft. The bad thing about my situation was the limb got to the soft grass faster than I did. So I stood up on my bruised hip, and I was now very upset. I had this real courage, so I just went, and I hit those bushes and I took off. I knew which way I was headed, and still there would be these thickets that were so big that you have to make these turns and stuff, and try to make your way around. But, this time, whenever I stepped out and felt that freedom of being away from all of those thickets, even though it looked like I’d been in a fight with two wildcats, I realized I was actually a little further away from where I first went in but still on the same side. At that point, wisdom kicked in. Experience. And I chose to walk around. I was not going back into that thicket again.

But, you know, today, as I was reading Luke I realize that in this gospel, Luke is the only one who gives us this story of Zacchaeus. The only one of the four gospels that we hear this story. This story is very important because it tells such a wonderful story. All those people who were blocking Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus were his thicket. Those were the things that were keeping him from getting to what he desired. most and that was to see Jesus. And so Zacchaeus, since he couldn’t get through, he decided to climb a tree, so he could see Jesus as he passed by. This is where If we’re reading just the words. we can miss such wonderful subtext. Zacchaeus was a wealthy man, as you heard Deacon Bill say. A very wealthy man, and yet all of these obstacles were keeping him from Christ. He tried to move several times, but each time he moved, the thicket was still in his way, blocking him from Christ.

So, do you find yourself, at times, wishing that you could be closer to God? But the things in life, the Church controversies, need for money, problems with your home, problems with your relationships, any number of things keep you from being able to get through that thicket to where you want to be. What do you do to overcome that thicket? How do you overcome it? Zacchaeus used a tree. And Jesus stopped and said to Zacchaeus, “Come down”, that he wanted to spend some time with him. So I ask you, do you have a tree? How is your prayer life? How do you get involved in ministry to others? How do you help those less fortunate than yourselves? I tell you, you need to find a tree. Let Jesus come to you and spend time with you.

I’d love to be able to make the comparison between Zacchaeus and a story about a rich young man a little earlier in Luke. The rich man came to Jesus and wanted to know what he had to do to be able to go to Heaven. Jesus tells him, “You have to sell everything that you own.” Last week, Fr Biju (I got to serve with him at the 7:30 Mass …One of the things I really miss right now is that the priests don’t get to preach at every single Mass in the day, so sometimes I get to hear a beautiful homily, and sometimes I miss one, like with Fr Ryan). But Fr Biju’s (homily) last week, when he made a kind of a bridge between the rich young man’s story and the story of Zacchaeus. And he said, in the gospel there was a trap, and the trap was how the Pharisee saw himself and others viewed the Pharisee, who felt that he was justified through his piety, and then the Pharisee compared to that tax collector, who stood back, never raised his head, but knew that he was a broken man and unworthy, but as Father said in his homily last week, he was actually just the opposite. It was the tax collector who was justified. So you think that rich young man would have had any trouble getting to Jesus? No. He was rich. He followed the commandments. He did what the law required of him. He was respected. But when Jesus told him the last thing that he needed to do to be able to get to Heaven was to sell everything that he had and to give the money to the poor, what did he do? He hung his head and walked away because things of this life were more important to him. That’s where his thicket was the thickest.

Things of this world can get in the way of us and where we want to be. But then you look at Zacchaeus, small stature, with everyone in his way, and no one was going to let him through. Why? As Fr Biju said last week, there’s a trap. Prejudging him due to his job, which was chief tax collector. He couldn’t be a good person and be a tax collector at the same time, at least not in the view of the people of the time. And because of that, when Jesus called him to come down from that tree so that they could spend time together, everyone, notice it’s not just the Pharisees, and its’s not just the Scribes who are complaining, everyone grumbled. Maybe even the apostles of Jesus, themselves. And why? Because he was a tax collector. No other reason. Fr Biju could not have been more precise in his message last week that we cannot give in to our prejudices. Because while they walked alone with that throng following behind them, Zacchaeus actually stopped Jesus, which meant that everyone stopped. and what did he tell Jesus? He said, “If I take more money by mistake from someone, the law prescribed that he give two times what he took back.” But not Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus said, “I give back four times”. Twice as much as he was required to do by law. And then he said, without Jesus even saying anything to him, “I give half of what I own to the poor”. And yet the rich young man was respected though he wouldn’t give anything , while Zacchaeus would have half of all he owned without Jesus saying anything. And yet, no one respected him.

As I said, this story of Zacchaeus is only in Luke. Luke is considered the Gentiles’ apostle because of stories like this that he shares with us. And that he was sent to us as the Gentiles, Jesus knew what he was doing and we have to trust Jesus to do what’s best for us.

For the last 10 years, I have stood up here, and I have looked out at all your beautiful faces – people that have loved me, and I have loved. And I have shared my experiences in my life – relationships, stories of my childhood, experiences a lot of time with my Dad. And I hoped that by sharing every day life, it would help you to understand the Gospel stories are not just words on a page. They are lessons that were taught long ago. And when I arrived here, I’ll be honest with you, I was a very broken man, spiritually. I couldn’t see God’s plan for me at all. And then I met Fr John Keller.

Fr John rebuilt me, as he has done for so many others here. And then I met the people of Prince of Peace. You. You became my place to heal. You accepted me and cared for me during that rebuild. And when Fr John asked me to lead the Pastoral Care Ministry, he said that he felt I had some thing to offer. One of the few times I know that Fr John was wrong. It wasn’t me that had something to offer. It was you who had something to offer to me. I could never be who I am today without your constant willingness to accept me with all my brokenness and all my foibles. I only hope that through these 10 years I have loved you just a fraction of how much I have been loved.

In my time with you, I have had a heart attack, had a bad motorcycle injury, had a breakup of my family, and I’ve lost my Mom. But I always knew there was a place that I could come and lay my head down and feel protected. That is this community and that is what you have done for me. It was hard to lose Fr John and Fr Alfonso. No chance to say farewell. It was not fair. It was not fair to any of us. I know how much it hurt me, and I know that it hurt you also.

But I have seen you as a community pull together – the Tax Day Floods, Harvey. This community is amazingly resilient. All of you have touched me in a very affirming way. Our volunteers in home-bound ministry, hospital ministry, institutional care, grief sharing, nursing, prayer blankets, receptions, Legion of Mary and the blood drive are all ones that I worked with closely. They are the ones I dealt with on a very personal level. But, there’s so many others. The Art & Environment volunteers, who have just blown us all away whenever we walk in here in a change in season and we have the church decorated in such a beautiful way. It just kind of takes your breath away. They work very, very hard. The Worship volunteers that – these Masses that we attend don’t take place without those in Worship who volunteer. And there are so many others – Youth, Evangelization, Sacramental Prep, and also Money Counters. Nobody knows who they are, and yet they work hours counting that money, preparing it to be taken to the bank. So many people here who have been such wonderful models not just to me, but to many of you also.

Today is my last opportunity to share a homily with you. I hope I have helped you at least a fraction of what you have done for me. December 1, I will be moving to Sts Simon & Jude in The Woodlands. But this I know, this is your church. As clergy, we are going to come and go. The only constant here is the people of Prince of Peace, and Jesus. Never, ever let anyone take that away from you. I bless you. I’m going to miss you. I love you dearly. I do. I have one very selfish request. And that is that you not forget me. Because I can promise you that I will never, ever forget you, children of Abraham.

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