Light the Fire Youth Rally 2019
Joshua 1:1-7; James 1:1-11; Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21

In the summer of 1990, I was living in Canada, mid-way though a degree program in Canon Law that I was asked to do by the bishop.  One of my friends whom I had gotten to know while doing studies was a priest from a diocese in Newfoundland, Canada.  That’s a tiny island province out in the north Atlantic, hundreds of miles northeast of Maine.  I had agreed to cover a parish there for a few weeks so that the pastor could get away for vacation.       The area where I stayed was about 50 miles from anywhere – a place called Norris Arm – located on a little inlet of the ocean.  It was generally a poor area – very rural – with moose and bear sightings a regular occurrence.

One Saturday evening following Mass, a parishioner asked me if I would stop by his mother’s house to visit her.  She was up in years and unable to get around that well.  I agreed and made my way to her house that evening.  It was a simple house and it was obvious that the woman was quite poor.  …  I knocked on the door and heard a voice shout out, “You don’t have to knock.  You’re most welcome here.  And when you’re welcome, you just walk through the door like it’s your home!”  That was one of my first experiences with the incredible hospitality of the folks who lived in that area.  But what came next touched me so deeply that I’ve never forgotten it for almost 30 years.  …  The table was set just for me.  “I’ve got to feed you, Father.  That’s what we do here in Newfoundland.  I don’t have much, but I do have something special that I want you to have.”  She went to the refrigerator and took out a tiny piece of meat.  It was half of a small steak that had obviously been cooked some time before.  “My son brought me this yesterday.  I ate half of it last evening and planned to have the other half for my dinner tonight.  But when I heard you were coming, I saved it for you.”

Most of us would probably never think to give a half-eaten left over to a guest.  But what meant so much to me about that encounter was that the woman didn’t wait for a better time to see me.  She didn’t give excuses.  She simply responded immediately to an unexpected visit with hospitality, generosity, love and the only thing she had to give.

I learned many lessons from that poor woman in Newfoundland who came into my life some 30 years ago. One of those lessons was the value of responding to whatever or whomever God places in our lives at any given moment of our journey.  It’s a lesson that I’m still trying to learn.  I – or is it fair to say “we” – tend to put things off a little bit more than my friend, don’t we?  We wait for the most convenient time – the right circumstances – the perfect response – and, in so doing, we miss out on all sorts of opportunities to touch another person’s life with kindness, love and the faith that we all so desperately seek to live out.

In today’s gospel, Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue where he sat as a boy and, in keeping with the custom of showing courtesy to a visiting rabbi, they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  He opens up the scroll and comes to these famous lines:  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.  He has sent me to bring good tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to the prisoners and to announce a year of favor from the Lord.”  He rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the assistant, and sits down.  Then, as the townsfolk waited for some important teaching, Jesus startles them by saying, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Later in the same gospel, we’re told that the townsfolk were a bit disturbed by Jesus’ words.  Some say it was the word “today” that Jesus used that bothered them the most.  …  Essentially, what Jesus was saying is that “today, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  …  The kingdom of God is here and now!

While our first response to such an assertion might be that of excitement about the presence of God among us, if we sit with that reality a bit, we just might become as uncomfortable with what it implies as the people of Nazareth were with Jesus’ unexpected words.  Why?  Because “today” – “now” – might very well demand something from me that I’m not yet prepared to give.  …  “I’m not quite ready, Jesus, to commit myself to living the gospel message.  There’s a few things I need to do before I embrace that responsibility.”  …  “I’d like to weigh my options a bit, Jesus.  I’m still young and haven’t quite sorted out what I want to do with my life.”  …  “Besides, is it really likely that God would be here today, now, in the mess of my life and in the mess of our Church?”

Brothers and sisters, for all of the questions that we might raise and for all of the hesitation that might emerge in our lives when faced with today’s gospel, I believe you know very well the consequences of Jesus’ assertion, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  …  The consequences are found in the words that you’ve proclaimed throughout this day, “We are the NOW of God.”  …  NOW – not tomorrow – not when we’re better equipped – NOW is the moment to make God’s love present in our world and in our lives!

Most of you know that Pope Francis spoke those words – the now of God – to thousands of young people like yourselves at World Youth Day in Panama earlier this year.  He also shared these thoughts that each of us would do well to sear into our hearts and minds, “Dear young people, your life is today. Your taking risks is today. Your space is today. How are you reacting to this?  …  You are not the future. …  No, you are the present. You are not the future of God; you young people are the now of God. He invites you and calls you in your communities and cities to go out and find your grandparents, your elders; to stand up and with them to speak out and realize the dream that the Lord has dreamed for you.”

We’ve been through a lot in the Church since last year when we gathered for Light the Fire.  Perhaps this past year has caused some of you to be angry – confused – disillusioned.  You expect more from your Church and its leaders – and you should!  Maybe some of you have friends who were with us last year and chose not to come this year, for obvious reasons.  …  Yet, for all of those feelings and more, you’re here.  I thank God for your presence.  I really do.  But let me ask you a question.  WHY are you here?  …  WHY DO YOU STAY?

The U.S. Catholic bishops twitter asked young Catholics what has made them stay.  For all of the responses that were given, this one seemed to sum it up best for me.  “I stay because of the Eucharist mostly, but also because of the powerful witness of Christ like Catholics whose faith leads them to work for justice.”  …  So many of you stay because of what we find in our Church – the sacramental life that culminates in the Eucharist – the very presence of Jesus given to us for our life, salvation and peace.  …  And so many of you stay because through the Eucharist, you find the strength that we need to serve as Jesus challenges us all to do in today’s gospel: to bring glad tidings to the poor … to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free … and to proclaim a time acceptable to the Lord.”   …  You stay because you believe that you are the now of God.  …  You stay because you believe that you have been called to make a difference for good in our world in Jesus’ name.  …  And you have indeed been called by God – everyone of you!

So let me give leave you with a challenge.  Go to your parish.  Speak with your pastor.  Talk with your youth minister if you have one.  If you need an excuse, tell them I sent you.  (Trust me, they won’t be upset with you.  They’ll just blame me!)  …  Let them know that you are there because you believe in the Church that Jesus founded.  …  Tell them that you have been called to work with them now – today – to recreate our Church into the image of Jesus.  …  Then use whatever opportunities you are given to make God’s love real and present in our midst.  And never forget, as Pope Francis reminds us, that you are not the Church of tomorrow – but you are the now of God and our world’s greatest hope!