How many big cities are identified by a visual, historic landmark? When people hear New York City, the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building seems to instantly come to mind; Paris – the Eiffel Tower is almost that city’s logo. For San Francisco, it is the Golden Gate Bridge. This amazing structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world – connecting the city to the rest of California, sadly holds another distinction. More people have committed suicide there than at any other place in the United States, or the rest of the world for that matter.
Hi everyone! This is my homily for November 3, 2019 – 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time . The readings for today’s Mass can be found HERE Thanks as always for reading; particularly grateful for sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it! Have a great week – God Bless – Fr Jim. AUDIO . Also you can get the audios of the homilies from iTunes as a Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fr-jim-cherns-homilies/id1440618142?mt=2
Back on September 25, 2000, a 19 year old man named John Kevin Hines was a freshman in college. Over the years that he was growing up, he had battled mental depression, and was on a bunch of different medications. But that fall morning, nothing seemed right; something very terribly wrong was happening. The voices in his head seemed louder and stronger to him, convincing him that he had to take his own life. So he kissed his father on the cheek, got on a local bus and headed to the bridge with his plans to end it all.
As he sat on the bus – he was crying. He promised himself that if anyone asked him what was wrong, he would not go through with it. The entire bus ride, no one did. So he got to the bridge, walked to the midway point where he stood, staring down for over 40 minutes. Out of nowhere, this woman approached him… he turned as she asked “can you take my picture?” He took 5 snapshots with the camera she handed to him, and gave the camera back to her, as tears continued to stream down his face. At which point she turned and walked away. With that, he took a few steps back, rushed the railing and threw himself over.
Horrendous isn’t it? This nameless tourist got her picture, got what she needed or wanted and couldn’t be bothered to simply ask “are you okay?” All that would have prevented him from making this leap was someone reaching out to ask him “what was the matter?” – more importantly to say to him that he mattered. Because at that low point of his life, he was so isolated, he was so hopeless and didn’t believe that to be the case.
How many people around us suffer from hopelessness? How many people do we know feel hopeless? How many of us do? Statistics, reports, stories all over the place telling of skyrocketing suicide rates, deaths from drug and alcohol abuse all point to a seeming epidemic of hopelessness for our world. Researchers point out that this is perhaps the first time in history where the economy is doing well, and unemployment is at historic lows (two of the usual main causes for severe stress and depression) but that there’s been a major uptick in mental health/stress issues affecting ever increasing numbers of people. Even for high school and college students, academic pressure isn’t considered as much of a contributing factor today as surveys show that most students spend far less time doing homework now then they did 20-30 years ago.
So what is the reason for this epidemic of hopelessness?
Many experts point to the rise in smartphones and social media which has resulted in far less inter-personal relationships and authentic friendships. But I can’t help but think that another factor has been a greater numbers of people who claim not to be Christian anymore. That’s not to blame those who have become disconnected. If anything that’s an indictment on the Church. Our failure to share the joy of the Gospel as we’ve been hamstrung by horrific stories of abuse, scandal and coverups – our being distracted by stupid political fights within the Church started by a small minority who have some other agenda other than sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ – who is the embodiment of Hope – all have a major part of this epidemic of hopelessness. This needs to convict us. Too many people have not heard that they have a God who loves them. A Heavenly Father who loved them into existence – who sustains them each and every moment of each and every moment. A Father who sent His son, Jesus here among us so that God would have a face and a name that we can approach, can know, can touch – can get so intimately close that we receive His very Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Too many don’t know that… Don’t know Him. Too many people like John Kevin Hines, that young man on the Golden Gate bridge, don’t think, don’t feel, don’t believe that they matter. Are hopeless.
In the Gospel we just heard, that was Zaccheus’ experience as well. Zacchaeus, was the ultimate outcast. As the chief tax collector he’s the epitome of a traitor: He’s working with the enemy – the Romans who’ve occupied his fellow Jews, collecting taxes from them – then charging them extra for himself. So to put it mildly, Zacchaeus’ fellow Jews would not be fans of his. The Romans, meanwhile – they’re happy to use the guy – he’s getting the job done – – – but he’s not one of them – he’s not a Roman – so it’s not like he’s getting invited to any of their dinner parties. Even St. Luke our Gospel writer who’s sharing the story doesn’t sound like he’s a big fan. He could’ve just set the story up that Zacchaeus wasn’t able to see Jesus so he runs ahead and climbs a tree. Adding that “he was short in stature” – seems kind of harsh… kind of unnecessary.
He’s in complete isolation and he knew it. Zacchaeus probably had resigned himself that for his life, that was it – he was going to be known as an outcast… a reprobate. But something within him makes him step out of this limited, diminished existence. He’s out there in the midst of crowds who know him and aren’t happy to see him – so much so that they won’t let the little guy in or up close to see Jesus (perhaps were shooting him some nasty looks) Something deep within Zaccheus calls him to open his heart, to look for something, someone to restore his Hope to tell Him that he matters that anyone would care about him. He’s got nothing to lose at this point -climbing this tree – thinking perhaps he will hear or see something that will do something, anything for him.
The Gospel puts it so gently, Jesus looked up…. What does Jesus see? He sees the loneliness, the brokenness of the man in the tree. He sees the lengths Zacchaeus went through just to see Him. He sees Zacchaeus in all humility looking for hope…. looking for Jesus. Jesus says Zacchaeus, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.
With Jesus inviting himself over to dinner…
With Jesus saying I desire to be with you…
I want to enter into your loneliness, your brokenness…
I want to go to your home for things to change….
Zacchaeus is being offered a radical new life. He wasn’t being seen as just some short guy or a wealthy man… He wasn’t being seen through the lens of others in the crowd: a traitor, or some puppet of Rome… Jesus looked at him right there, right as he was in the midst of his mess with love. And that look of love from Jesus made all the difference. It restores his Hope. Zacchaeus who had given up everything in the pursuit of riches, and power does this 180 degree turn – now promising to give all of that up just because of this encounter with Jesus. The lengths Zacchaeus went through just to see Jesus that one day would be incredibly insignificant in comparison to the lengths he’s going to go through now that he has met Jesus.
John Kevin Hines that fateful morning on the Golden Gate Bridge – sadly no one reached out to him…he never heard the words he longed for from his fellow passengers or the tourist more interested in his taking her picture. We know all of this because miraculously John Kevin Hines survived. He is one of only less than 2 dozen individuals who have survived such an attempt. And it has changed his life. As he talks about how that darkness had enfolded him, driving him to jump, he says almost immediately he regretted what he had done, crying out “I don’t want to die.” He hit the water at 75 miles per hour, yet somehow did not lose consciousness. As he tried to swim to the surface, he realized his legs were numb and useless. He could not stay afloat when suddenly he felt a large sea animal brush against him. So now his fear was, great, I jump off the bridge, somehow survived that to have shark come eat me. Witnesses later would report that it was a sea lion nudging him to the surface. The Coast Guard picked him out of the water, and rushed him to a Hospital where he had multiple injuries and would continue to fight to survive over the next 24 hours.
Praise God, he did, and as he shares his story he says “I thank God [that I lived]. One regular visitor [I had] was a Franciscan monk. As we talked he suggested that I was spared for a reason, perhaps to tell my story, maybe to help put an end to almost 70 years of preventable deaths off the Bridge.” So that’s what he’s working to do. He works with a foundation trying to raise awareness about this problem on this bridge, he goes to schools where he tells his story he counsels at-risk youth. His life has been forever changed as God revealed a new plan from that moment on.
Yes we see a lot of hopelessness in the world around us. Maybe we even suppress those types of thoughts and feelings within ourselves: When we struggle at work, when there’s difficulties at home, when illness and death hit our loved ones – and we feel like no one knows, no one understands, no one is listening…
The beauty of this Gospel story – the beauty of our faith in Jesus Christ – is that we know that is not true. Being here today, we remind ourselves that our stories are not fixed or finished. We have a God who loves us – and we don’t have to give into the lies that others say about us, or that we tell ourselves. Lies that were not good enough, holy enough, worthy enough to be in Jesus presence.
The reality is Jesus is searching for us, wanting to gaze on us with His eyes to tell us we do matter, that we are loved. Despite how trapped we might think we are by the poor decisions we’ve made, despite the prisons we find ourselves confined to because of whatever mistakes we keep letting define us and weigh us down, Jesus offers us true freedom when we lift our downcast eyes to look to Him – when we stop listening to the devil’s insistence that our past is our present and future and hear Jesus offering us His Love, His Mercy and calling us to change our lives here and now by becoming loving and merciful ourselves.
C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest of contemporary Christian authors talks beautifully about what happens when Jesus invites himself in- not just for Zacchaeus, but everyone of us. He says “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
May Zacchaeus prompt in us a desire to let Him. To Let Jesus enter in. To make us bold and not let anything prevent us from seeing Jesus; To make us humble and let Jesus look at us as we are; To make us courageous and to let His look of Love transform our lives… all so that you and I can be examples, witnesses that testify to the world of the true Hope that is found in being loved by Jesus.