Witnessing for Christ in the Subway and other Small Acts of Discipleship


grayscale photo of woman in front of train

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Homily for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2019

Isaiah 6:1-2A, 3-8 || First Corinthians 15:1-11  || Luke 5: 1 – 11

If you ever travel as I do between the Green Line and North Station during the evening commute, you will invariably see two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing next to a portable literature rack that contains pamphlets about their faith. They are well dressed, very friendly, and if you catch their eye, they will give you a warm smile. They aren’t very aggressive.  If you speak to them, they will speak to you.  Otherwise, they just stand there as you go on your way through the tunnel connecting the subway to the commuter rail.

They call what they are doing witnessing…witnessing to their faith… They are out there in the public as disciples.

As I passed by them this week, it made me wonder what do we – you and I – do to witness to our Catholic Christian faith? How do present ourselves to the world as disciples of Christ?

The three readings today talk about our call to be witnesses to our faith.  Through our baptism, we are all called to be disciples.  At your baptism, the priest or deacon touched your ears and lips, saying “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith to the Glory of God the Father.” It is your baptismal call – your obligation as a Catholic – to proclaim the Catholic faith.

But, as I see it, there are two reasons we don’t do this as much as we should.

First, we live in multicultural, multi-religious society that is increasingly becoming secular. And in this environment, we often sidestep any talk that highlights our differences to avoid making each other feel uncomfortable.  You’ve often heard the phrase – “Don’t discuss religion and politics.”

But we have to get beyond this fear of offending others.  At the very least, we must be able to respond to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?

The second reason that we shy away from being a visible disciple of Christ is because we don’t feel we are up-to-the challenge. We don’t think that we are smart enough… or holy enough.  But who is?  I mean look at the three readings for today – they all involve people called to be disciples who feel unworthy of the call.

In the first reading, we hear the prophet Isaiah say, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”  In the second reading, Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God.”  In the Gospel reading, Peter sees his fishing nets miraculously bursting at the seams and he drops to his knees, saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

None of these people feel holy enough.

And if you are wondering whether you feel up-to-the-task intellectually, consider St. Peter.  He didn’t have an advanced degree in philosophy of theology.  He didn’t go to college – or whatever the equivalent was in those days.  He was a fisherman, with a very limited education.  And yet, Jesus chose him to be the rock upon which he would build his church… the leader of the Apostles… his top disciple.  You don’t need to have the mind and learning of a Thomas Aquinas.   You just need to be able to communicate from the heart why you have faith… why you believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Catholic Church.

But even more important than your ability to articulate the reason you are a Catholic is the way you live your life.   The way you express your faith in worship and the way you care for others will speak so much louder than words. Being a disciple means be-ing a disciple in ways that go beyond words. Jesus gave us two commandments –  to love the Lord and to love one another.  We witness to our family and friends when they see us love the Lord by worshiping God and participating in the sacramental life of the church. And we also witness to them when we go out of our way to show them compassion, patience and love.

To give you an example, I want to close this homily by sharing another subway story.

A couple of weeks ago, I was riding the Orange Line to Back Bay Station.  I noticed an older woman sitting across from me.  She was quietly praying the rosary…  slowly fingering the beads as she said each Hail Mary to herself, her eyes closed in meditation.  There, in a crowded subway, in the midst of the all these people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes, she was quietly witnessing to her Catholic faith.  She was being a disciple for Christ.

Remembering Deceased Members of the Harvard Class of 1983 at Memorial Church

Emerson Hall

“What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him,” Emerson Hall, Harvard Yard.


I was asked to offer a reflection at my 35th Harvard College reunion for our fellow classmates who have died.  We have lost 57 members of the Class of 1983, many of whom were my friends, and we held a reunion service for them, as we do every five years at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.  

Memorial Reflection

When I was a philosophy student here I would walk in and out of Emerson Hall several times a week, and I’d look up at the inscription at the top of the building which says, “What is man that thou art mindful of him,” and I’d ponder its meaning.  It comes from the Bible… from Psalm 8, which asks us to wonder what it means to be a human being. What makes us so important that God thinks about us.  What makes us — as the Psalmist says in the next line — little less than a God.

St. Augustine, in The Confessions tries to answer those questions. He writes about memory, and how memory helps define us as being humans and makes us a little less than a God.  The whole book of The Confessions is about Augustine remembering… remembering his life, his failures, his struggles, the people he loved. And in one of the most poignant, moving parts of that book, remembering his beloved mother Monica.

God is mindful of us because we can be mindful of God and because we can be mindful of each other.  We can hold each other in our memory… those of us who are here and those of us who have passed on.

Remembering the dead spans cultures and religions. I like to walk around Lake Quannapowit in Wakefield, just about 15 miles north of here, near where I live. There’s a large Jewish cemetery along the lake, and as I walk by I see all those rocks that have been placed on the gravestones of people to show that someone was there… that someone was there to remember.  In Mexico on el Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — whole families spend time at the graves of their loved ones.  In certain parts of China, they celebrate something called “Tomb Sweeping Day,” when people remember their ancestors by cleaning their grave sites.

If you think of it, here in Harvard Yard, memory is all around us. We are surrounded by buildings that prompt us to remember the dead.  We are in Memorial Church, which recalls those who died in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam…  Across the way is Memorial Hall built to remember the Union dead of the Civil War. Throughout the Yard are buildings that memorialize people who gave their time, talent and treasure to the University. Pennypacker, Stoughton, Wigglesworth, Grays, Hollis… the list goes on.  We probably couldn’t appreciate it as Freshmen living here, so young… so untouched by death… so far away from our own mortality … but in many ways, Harvard Yard is one big memorial to the those who have died.

Think about Harry Elkins Widener. For me, the most moving memorial here is Widener Library, a way for Eleanor Elkins Widener to console herself at the death of her son Harry on the Titanic.   A way for her to remember.

I remember Jeff Goldsby.  And maybe some of you do as well.  I remember his big personality — a surfer from Newport Beach, California who loved to laugh and have fun. I remember how he would travel to any Grateful Dead concert within a 300-mile radius of Cambridge. I remember him teaching me how to surf in the men’s room of Weld North using a big piece of cardboard. Jeff loved to look out from his window on the third floor of Weld Hall and to check out what was going on in the Yard. And I remember how one day as I was walking up the steps of Widener Library on my way to study in the stacks, I heard him, in his booming voice calling out to me loud enough to stop several groups of tourists in their tracks and make them look up at him, “Hey O’Shie” — that was my nickname — “Hey O’Shie, say hello to Harry for me.”  Jeff, who I remember now wanted me to remember him to Harry Elkins Widener.

Memories of those who have passed are always connected to love and, through love, to forgiveness. Have you ever noticed how well we speak of the dead?   We always tend to remember and tell the stories that are joyful… happy… funny. Whatever faults they had tend to recede from our memory. And I think this is another way in which we are a little less than a God — as the Psalmist says — this capacity to express forgiveness and love in the memory we have of others.  For those who are basically good people, we do forget, we do forgive those small slights…  those small transgressions…. those small trespasses against us.

All of us here are on a pilgrimage through life together. One of the great things that I love about reunions is that it gives us a moment to stop and connect with each other while we are on this pilgrimage… to connect not only with our friends, but to get to know people that we might never have met during college and to deepen relationships with those we barely knew.  To tell stories. To draw on old memories and build new ones. And to remember our friends who have passed on.

Because memory is about relationships. Sure, we can remember places and things but it’s really the people in our lives who impress the deepest memories upon us. And these memories are what connect us. One of the prayers at a Catholic wake service has a line that goes like this: “My brothers and sisters, we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection that knit us together throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  Connections, relationships, the bonds of love that we build. So many things can pass from us, but these remain.

In my faith tradition, we believe we will all see each other again on the other side if we have lived a good, faithful life. That the reunions won’t end…. And that at our 70th or 80th or 90th or 100th reunion, we will all be together again.  Until then, lets continue to hold in our hearts and minds our friends who have gone on before us.  Let’s cherish each other.  And let’s always remember.

I am the vine. You are the branches. Homily for 5th Sunday of Easter

vines-and-mountainsI’m not much of a gardener but I remember my mom working in the garden. I can still see her taking her pruning shears through the branches of her rhododendrons removing the shoots that had withered up and were getting in the way of new branches.

This winter, with all the storms, we only have to look into our yards to see all those weak branches that fell as they were whipped around by the rain and the wind and weighted down by the snow.

Jesus tells us, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

To bear fruit, we must remain in Jesus. Now, what does that mean — to “remain” in Jesus? It means to be always connected to Him. And how do we stay connected to Him? Through prayer. Through regular attendance at mass and participation in the Eucharist. Through regular confession.

Today’s second reading has a little bit to say about this. John’s letter reminds us about the great commandment – to love God by believing in his son Jesus Christ and to love one another. Our faith is quite simple. Love God and love your neighbor.

It’s simple but it’s incredibly profound… profound and difficult… because it is so hard to really do those two things consistently.  I know there are times when I fail to show my love for God by attending to my daily prayer life the way I should. And there are times when I struggle to love my neighbor. And let’s face it some people are just really hard to love. We need Jesus to help us do these things.

To flourish… To bear fruit by living a life of holiness… a life of giving of oneself to others… A life of virtue… We can’t do this alone.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit because without me you can do nothing.” We need to allow Jesus to prune the way the dead branches of sin so that we can bear fruit.  We need to be open enough to allow him into our hearts and minds so he can work on us… so he can clear out all the deadwood of pride, anger, lust, laziness, envy and greed.

It’s a real challenge to acknowledge that we can’t do this alone… that we need to rely on Jesus.  In our culture, we value independence and self-reliance. Amazon.com offers us thousands of books on selfimprovement.  Self-help gurus make millions peddling the idea that you can make yourself a better person if you pay them money, go to their seminars and use the techniques they teach.  In the face of all this, it is an act of faith to say I can’t make myself a better person on my own — without the help of Jesus Christ.  And yet that is precisely the message of the Gospel we read today.

A few weeks ago, I was driving around town, and I noticed several people burning dead branches in their yards.  Between January 15th to May 1st in Massachusetts, we have something called “the burning season”.  You can go to town hall, get a permit and burn all the dead branches, and brush and other debris left by winter storms.

Jesus is telling us life is like the burning season.  God gives us a choice.  Go it alone… wrap ourselves in pride to the point where we whither — folded in on ourselves — no longer connected to the sap and marrow of Christ’s love.  Dry and unable to produce fruit.  Fit only as fuel for the fire.

Or we can remain in Jesus Christ.  We can rely upon his grace and live a life that produces good things.  A life that is rich in joy and abundant in blessing.  A life that can weather the storms of disappointment and suffering. A life always connected to Christ and rooted in God the Father.