“Choose life and make life as meaningful as you can, regardless of your present situation.”
Those were my opening words when I preached at Dannemora Maximum Security Prison at two services this weekend, standing in the sanctuary of the Church of St. Dismas and seeing a sea of prison green in the pews below. I prayed I’d be a sign of hope to all, not just a passing fascination. I prayed that my words would match my desire to share the abiding presence of the Dominican Sisters of Hope.
The readings lent themselves to both the oddity of preaching on the Scriptures and how the Mission of Hopewas intertwined with the words of Jesus. Additionally, they presented an unusual opportunity to preach to inmates about the commandments and the need to be heart-centered when living out our faith.
At first glance, one could get entangled with the letter of the law and could easily become hopeless as we realize we are far less than perfect in living the commandments. But, I would like to suggest that some of the most powerful words we hear in this Gospel are: “You have heard it said, but I say…” Jesus was surely inviting us, yes, even challenging us to recognize that, while law is the foundation of much of our lives, it must be laws that are “heart-centered,” laws that reflect an interior attitude of integrity, compassion, kindness, and love: love that is focused on Love of God and Love of Neighbor!
Jesus was quite clear in stating “Let your YES be YES.” So, I’d like to share a couple of stories from my Mission of Hope experiences that are life lessons for me. The first occurs in the Managua city dump, where 3500 children live among the turkey vultures and wild boars and cows, where children are sold to garbage truck drivers and the smoke from burning garbage not only burns your eyes and throat, but becomes mud on your face as you feel your tears mixing with the ashes. That place was a modern day Gehenna, where human lives continue to be sacrificed for the sake of the human vultures.
On this particular trip, I had taken the mission group to the top of the garbage pile, overlooking a cesspool below and we prayed, vowed to make life better, and reflected on some action steps. Then, we started down the steep incline; I lost my balance on the gravel and nearly fell into the cesspool. My life flashed before my eyes, and I wondered if anyone would know I had died. At that precise moment, a boy who lives in the dump appeared out of nowhere and shoved me back onto the path, literally saving me. He was ten, maybe twelve years old.
Overcome with gratitude, I reached into my pocket and offered him a $5 bill, knowing full well that for a child living in the dump, that kind of money was “gold.” He handed it back to me and I handed it back to him again. The second time, he put it in my hand and told me in Spanish, “One does not pay for kindness!” I was overcome with a realization that this child, who had minimal choices in his life, made a choice for meaning in the midst of a life torn apart by the actions of others. He got the gospel message of today, i.e., he chose to make life more meaningful and to live the law of love!
Or there’s the sixteen-year-old orphan at the orphanage who was going to be sent to the city because she was sixteen and, thus, needed to move on because there was only so much food. Over the years, the Mission of Hope has impacted and provided sponsorship to that orphanage and I am now pleased to tell you that the girls do not get sent to the city at the age of sixteen anymore, but rather, they get sent to high school and college.
Yet, on this day, her birthday, I asked some of my high school students to share a “gift” with her. One reached into his pocket, found a package of crackers, we all sang happy birthday to her and gave her the package. She promptly opened the package, gave the first 5 crackers to the 5 orphan kids closest to her and then took the last one (this same girl who was going to be on the street in a week) and she broke the cracker in two and handed half back to my high school student who had given her the package. SHE GOT IT! She understood how to choose life, to make it more meaningful even in the midst of her present situation. She understood that one must live with an interior attitude that reflects love of God and love of neighbor. She took the commandments to a much deeper level than one might expect of one so marginalized and young.
And so, I am here today to invite you to hear Jesus’s words again, for the first time. “Let your yes mean yes,” and say NO to all that makes you less than you have the potential to be. It is never too late.
Then, you may hear these words whispered to you personally: “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love God.” Love of God and love of neighbor brings each of us to a fullness of life that Jesus speaks of today.
This is what I wish for each of you. Let your YES mean YES! May Hope sustain you and let us promise to pray for each other.
(As a quick anecdote, I was quite overwhelmed with their profound gestures of approval, of applause and wanting me to come back to share more HOPE! AMEN. And then, I was handed checks totaling $2000 to serve the marginalized children through the Mission of Hope. Indeed, hope was present in this Eucharistic service this day. May we all choose to make our lives meaningful and may we live our lives heart centered going forth.)