Deacon Tim and Joe

Our formation directors, Deacon Tim Elliott and
Deacon Joe Stackhouse.

The End of an Era
Today marks the conclusion of our classroom formation for the permanent diaconate. Next month and in March we will spend a weekend practicing the liturgical actions of serving as a deacon, but we’ve now concluded over four and a half years of classroom study with these past two weekends of homiletics classes.

Yes, the assigned reading and homework is now behind us, but by no means does this mean that we have finished our deacon formation. This is a life-long process. In fact, we will have an obligation to continuing study and spiritual retreats following ordination. However, completing the past two month’s classes on how to give an effective and proper homily is a major milestone in our journey to ordination.

Deacon Sean Smith, Chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville

Deacon Sean Smith, Chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville

A deacon is typically given faculties by the Bishop to preach. Although the ordinary “preacher” at a Mass is the celebrant (the presiding priest), it is common in our diocese for a deacon to be asked to preach once ever 4-6 weeks. Some pastors allow their deacons to preach regularly and others do not. This is the prerogative of the pastor. Because the chances are quite good that we will be asked to give the homily from time to time, it’s important that we learn to do it well.

Homiletics Class – Reading Assignment
To prepare for our instruction in homiletics we were required to read two books that will be valuable resources in the coming years as we prepare homilies. The first is “Preaching to the Hungers of the Heart” by James Wallace. This book is chock full of themes and ideas for developing a homily for a variety of liturgical seasons.

My growing library. I need a new bookshelf!

My growing library. I need a new bookshelf!

The second book we added to our growing library is published by the USCCB from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is an excellent resource called the “Homiletic Directory.” 

Preparing and Delivering our First Homilies
Our first homiletics class was somewhat of a trial by fire. Of course we were expected to have completed our assigned reading prior to our weekend class (we arrive for class Friday evening and are dismissed Sunday afternoon once a month). We were assigned our first homily that evening and were expected to have it ready to deliver to the group the following morning. We were told to keep it under 8 minutes in length and that we would be scored on a variety of criteria (see photo at right).

Homily Score Sheet - 1After all the homilies had been delivered and scored, we were assigned a second homily to prepare Saturday night for delivery Sunday morning. This was a difficult assignment for many in the class, as we had very little time to prepare. I am thankful that mine were well received and I scored highly on both.

This month was more of the same, with the exceptions being that we were assigned our first homily earlier in the week.  This provided us more time to develop it, which was appreciated. When we arrived at class on Friday night, we were assigned Sunday’s homily, which was to be for a funeral. We each received an obituary of someone we did not know and were instructed to develop a homily for his or her funeral.

A Truly Unique Opportunity
It just so happened that Saturday morning’s breakfast, Deacon Tim asked me if I had heard about a recently deceased Knoxville man who had been living in the woods for the past 30+ years. I had not, but was intrigued. He told me that I was free to develop the homily for his funeral using the same readings I had been assigned for the obituary I had been assigned the night before. I took him up on the offer.

I learned a great deal about Earl Terrell from an article about him that appeared this past week in the Knoxville News-Sentinal. There was also a link to a community Facebook page devoted to his memorial called “Loving Earl“. It was chock full of inspiring comments and facts about this man who chose to live “off the grid.” I throughly enjoyed developing my funeral homily in his memory. (Note: this homily will not be used at Earl Terrell’s funeral on Tuesday. It was simply developed as a learning exercise.)

My Homilies
I thought I’d share the four homilies I wrote in case you were interested in reading them. If nothing else, this will be a good place to come back to them in a few years to reminisce about my first attempts at unpacking God’s word for the instruction of the faithful. Through all of this I learned that I enjoy developing and giving homilies very much.

Homily #1 – 4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle A (prepared December 2015)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and I’d like to REFLECT on why our relationship with Jesus should be like the relationship of sheep to their shepherd and SUGGEST what we can do to enter more fully into that relationship. In today’s culture it’s very difficult for us to appreciate how sheep relate to their shepherd, as most of us are not simply not familiar with sheep and shepherds. I’d like to take a moment to provide some background so we can all arrive at a deeper understanding of why Jesus used this particular imagery to explain how we should relate to him.

Sheep were extremely important animals in biblical times. They provided wool for clothing and meat for food. They were essential to the life and livelihood of the people. The people of Jesus’ time would have clearly understood the significance of the relationship of the sheep and their shepherd based on their practical experience with sheep in their culture.

At the end of each day the shepherds would lead their sheep from the pastures to a common gated area called a sheepfold. The sheep enter the sheepfold through the gate, who Jesus tells us is himself. It is only through this gate, Jesus himself, that we enter into the the sheepfold, the Church. There is no other way to enter into the life and safety of the Church than through Jesus himself, who gave his life for his sheep. (CCC 754)

There in the sheepfold, a single shepherd would spend the night with the sheep until the next morning, when the other shepherds would return to lead their own flock out to pasture. As the shepherd called his sheep, they would follow him. They recognized his voice and would follow only him.

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus calls to each of us to follow him. We will only come to know his voice if we spend time with him and learn from him. If we don’t spend time with our shepherd, we can’t expect to know his voice when he calls. Rather, we will quite likely follow others in our culture who attract us with their intelligence, their wit or their beauty, but who ultimately lead us to our demise. If we do not know Jesus’ voice, we can easily be deceived and follow a bad shepherd who is not interested in anything other than what we can do for him.

Here’s the important point… by participating in the life of the Church, the sheepfold, we grow in faith and come to know Christ’s voice. In the Sacred Liturgy we profess our faith, celebrate the Christian mystery, and participate in the life of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

The Catechism emphasizes that “Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy, so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer. (CCC 2558)

By participating in the life of the Church, we become one with our beloved shepherd as members of his mystical body. This is the promise of our Catholic faith and it is a reality that is present today. This mystery of our unity with Christ will soon come in a fullness that we can barely even imagine. And it will remain so forever…for all eternity.

Soon we will receive Holy Communion, which is the real presence – the body, blood, soul and divinity – of our Good Shepherd. When we receive this Eucharist worthily, Jesus literally enters us and transforms us into sheep who better know and hear their shepherd. Let us pray that we will allow this Eucharist to change us into people who hunger to hear Jesus’ voice and follow him as sheep follow their shepherd. Let us pray that our desire to listen to him every day through prayer will increase, especially by participating actively in the life of the Church. Amen.


Homily #2 – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (prepared December 2015)

Today’s gospel is the beginning of the “Bread of Life discourse.” It immediately follows the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in John’s gospel when Jesus fed the five thousand. Here we find the people he miraculously fed the day before, looking for him in the aftermath of this miracle. Jesus discerns that they are seeking him not because they saw the signs he performed, but because he filled their bellies with food. Just what is it that we seek from Jesus? What should we seek from him? Do we primarily seek material things to meet our material needs, or do we seek signs from him that lead us into a deeper faith and a closer relationship with him?

Now you may be thinking that seeking signs from Jesus is somewhat akin to putting God to the test. I suppose it could be, but I don’t believe this is the meaning of the word Jesus had in mind. He knew clearly that the multiplication of the loaves he performed the day before was a sign. It was a sign of his divinity and of his loving compassion for all of us. It was also a sign that pointed to the Eucharist, which had yet to be established. I believe that Jesus’ use of the word “signs” was meant to give us a glimpse of the generous grace and mercy that would be found through the soon-to-be-established sacraments.

The Catechism confirms this meaning of the word “signs,” teaching that the sacraments are “efficacious SIGNS of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” (CCC 1131)

So again I ask, what do we seek from Jesus? Do we seek these signs or do we think of him as a generous rich or influential uncle from whom we can request funds for a new car or pull some strings for our promotion? Are we like those who sought him because he filled their bellies with food?

In one sense, this petitioning God for our material needs shows our trust in the providence of God. There’s really nothing wrong with this. Sure, God is certainly capable of helping us get the funds for a new car or setting things in motion for a job promotion. But is this ALL we should be asking him for? Should our relationship with God be reduced to solving all the nitty-gritty issues of our daily lives?

Put another way, do we seek the bread given by the father, or do we seek the father who gives us bread? On a spiritual level, Saint Ignatius said: “seek not the consolation of God, but seek the God of consolation.”

In our prayer lives we should seek to know GOD’S WILL for us, rather than simply petitioning him to help us accomplish OUR will. We should seek his SIGNS through the frequent reception of the sacraments, especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Reading scripture daily and setting aside time for prayer is also key to discovering God’s will for us each day.

As Jesus proclaims in today’s gospel, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesus knows what’s best for us in the long run. He truly knows what we need and if we trust him we can be sure that he will provide that which will ultimately draw us closer to him.

The abundant life is not about having a full belly, a new car and a job promotion. No, the abundant life is found through a close personal relationship with Jesus, developed by walking and talking with him daily. To know and trust Jesus…this is what we should be seeking from him. By doing so we will begin to clearly see the signs he shows us and come to know his will.

Seeking to see his signs and to do his will is the only way to experience true joy in our lives. We will never again hunger or thirst when our motivation is to do his will, rather than to petition him that our will be done.

So as we approach the Eucharist today, let us offer Jesus our lives in exchange for his. Let us tell him that we will make an effort to trust him more and to listen to what he wants to do with us. Let us ask him for the grace to empty ourselves so that he can fill us with his grace and his life. Let us tell him that we are his to do with as he pleases, trusting that he will only do that which draws us nearer to him and fills us with joy, the joy that remains even in the most trying circumstances. Let us take him at his word that HE is the bread of life and let us promise to do better to seek to hear and do his holy will. Amen.


Homily #3 – Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle C (prepared January 2016)

Homily – 3rd Sunday of Lent – Year C
Exodus 3:1-8a; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

Today’s readings are some of the most important teachings on our need for REPENTANCE and CONVERSION. Repentance certainly is an appropriate theme for Lent because this is the time when the Church asks us, above all, to repent.

So what is REPENTANCE and how is it related to CONVERSION?

These terms are often used interchangeably. Clearly they are interrelated and both describe an action of turning to God. They are also dependent upon one another. Repentance leads to conversion and conversion makes us aware of our need for repentance.

While many people think of repentance and conversion as synonymous terms, in fact they have different meanings.

The Catechism defines CONVERSION as “A radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil, and toward God.” The RADICAL reorientation of one’s WHOLE LIFE toward God. This is conversion.

REPENTANCE, on the other hand, is defined as CONTRITION, stating that it is the “Sorrow of the soul and hatred for the sin committed, together with a resolution not to sin again.” The sorrow of the soul and a hatred for the sin committed. We are all sinners, aren’t we? To experience conversion we must learn to hate sin and resolve to sin no more.

Many Christians define conversion as a one-time experience. They think of it as what happened to Paul when he met Jesus and was knocked to the ground. BAM!

According to this understanding, CONVERSION is the moment people talk about when they describe an experience of profound grace that awakens them to the presence of God. For our Protestant brothers and sisters it may be what they experienced the day they were “saved.”

Many do have these profound experiences of conversion, no doubt, but most of us do not.

The Catechism (CCC 1490) tells us that “Conversion is accomplished in DAILY LIFE by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, and endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.

Conversion, my friends, is accomplished daily. For most of us it’s a slow and steady process of changing how we look at and react to the world around us.

As I said previously, Repentance brings about conversion and conversion brings about repentance. Together they allow us to see things from God’s perspective rather than our own perspective. They have practical implications in the way we live. Repentance is the day-to-day work we all must do to experience daily conversion.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about the critical need for each of us to repent, saying that if we do not repent we will perish. He goes on to shed some light on what repentance is through the parable of the fig tree. In the parable, the owner of the fig tree agrees to let the gardener fertilize and cultivate around the tree in one last effort to get it to bear fruit. Like the owner of the orchard, the Lord is patient as he cultivates and fertilizes us to help us grow. This growth can be thought of as conversion, born of repentance, which allows us to bear fruit. If we are not fruitful, we are barren and useless. The fig tree that is barren is good for nothing but firewood.

Christ calls us to repentance through various circumstances in our lives that are signs of his love for us. He calls us through tragic events and through experiences of immense blessing. But he mostly calls us through the ordinary events we experience day in and day out.

Each time we acknowledge and sincerely repent of our sins, and promise God that we’ll to do our best to avoid them in the future, we close the gap between living our lives on our own terms and living life on his terms. In these times we experience conversion.

Let’s ask the Lord to fertilize and cultivate us through his mercy, his love in the face of our need, especially in this Year of Mercy, so that we might experience daily conversion and live more fully the life he intends us to live.

So my friends, what is conversion? It’s our daily experience of turning to God and living a more Christ-centered life. It is essential for our salvation.

And repentance? It’s the daily acknowledgement of our sins that springs from and leads us into continual conversion. Repentance is essential for our conversion.

This morning let us resolve to embrace repentance and desire conversion as we approach Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. As we receive his real presence in the Eucharist let us ask him to change our hearts and our minds so we can become more like him each and every day. Let us pray that we can embrace repentance and experience conversion every day through the ordinary circumstances of our lives. Amen.


Homily #4 – Funeral for Earl Terrell (prepared January 10, 2016)

Funeral Homily for Earl Terrell 
1 John 3:14-16 and Matthew 25:31-46

Allow me to welcome all of you gathered here to remember and say farewell to Earl today. It’s wonderful to see so many of you in attendance as we pay our final respects to Earl in the absence of any of his immediate family. While so many of us did not know Earl personally, your presence is a testament to how Earl’s life has touched all of us through the stories that have been told in the media and on his Facebook memorial page. I’m so glad you all made the effort to be here to celebrate Earl’s life today.

Our readings today have a common theme: the importance of love for our neighbor. They teach us that a life lived for others is a life of service to Jesus and will be rewarded with the gift of eternal life.

Earl was a man we have come to know as a result of his unique lifestyle. He didn’t consider himself to be homeless, but he emphatically maintained that he “lived off the grid.” His humble living accommodations were a matter of his choice, not something that was pressed upon him.

Some of us had the opportunity to serve him and provide him with healthcare in his final months of life, which was certainly a wonderful blessing for you. From Earl’s Facebook tribute page we can all learn a great deal about this man and his faith; faith that undoubtedly sustained him in this life and now as his soul ascends to heaven.

In reading through the many comments by those who encountered Earl over the years, I was struck by his generosity and concern for his neighbor. I am also struck by the fact that we are all gathered here to pay tribute to a man who, in spite of the fact that he had very little in the way of material goods, shared what he had with others in need.

Our first reading today speaks of the critical importance that love of our brother has for our eternal salvation. John teaches that we come to know this love by the example of Christ, who laid down his life for all of us. He states that we pass from death into life because of this love, Christ’s love for us and our love for our neighbor.

Our gospel reading today from Matthew is the well-known story of the Lord separating the sheep from the goats at the final judgement. Jesus makes it clear that he himself is present in those who are poor, sick, imprisoned, naked, hungry and thirsty. I’m sure that those who had the opportunity to visit Earl at his home in the woods came away feeling as though they had just encountered Jesus.

Even more significant is the impact Earl is having on this community as we remember him and how he quietly lived among us all these years. A man of extremely modest means, Earl never imposed on others for handouts. He was fiercely independent, did not ask for sympathy, and seemed to be inclined to find ways he could help others. Earl was a man who was generous with the little he had and whose example is inspiring others to be more generous with their neighbors as his notoriety spreads through the local media and word of mouth.

Friends, in his passing Earl is inspiring us to be more aware of the needs of those who have very little. He is inspiring us to be more faithful in our practice of the corporal works of mercy. He is showing us that regardless of how little one may own, we all have something we can share with someone in need.

When we serve others, we serve Jesus. When we volunteer our time to feed the hungry or help to clothe the naked, we are feeding and clothing Jesus. It is these acts of love for our neighbor – especially the least ones, those with no political power or social standing – that leads to our eternal reward. Why? Because in those times we are serving the least among us, we are closest to Jesus.

As we recall today all of the wonderful characteristics of this unique Christian man, let us open our hearts to all those who don’t enjoy the comforts of a home and three meals a day. Let us resolve to serve the hundreds of neighbors throughout this fine city of Knoxville who find themselves on the street or in a situation that seems hopeless. Let us visit them and accompany them on their journey by being present to them.

Let us take to heart Jesus’ words in today’s gospel so that he will say to all of us at the end of our lives:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Inspired by the passing of this simple Christian man, let us recommit ourselves to serving Jesus by serving our neighbor and so prepare ourselves to be invited to join Earl in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.