May 4, 2014 click on left end of black bar to play-pause
May 4, 2014
Fr. George Smiga
I grew up on the east side of Cleveland on a small street just off of Nottingham Road. It was a great neighborhood. It was the kind of neighborhood where families would gather on one another’s porches on summer nights and kids would play ball in the street. Everyone in our neighborhood knew one another and looked out for one another—with one exception. In the middle of our street there was a house which was covered over with vines. The yard was filled with trees and shrubs which made the house difficult to see. Around the yard was an iron fence, and on the fence there was a gate, and on the gate there was a sign. It said: KEEP OUT. In that house lived a large bald man who everyone in our neighborhood called “The Russian.” I don’t know if anyone knew his real name. But if they did they never used it. “The Russian” had a big black dog that all of us kids in the neighborhood called Hell Hound, because if you even came close to the fence, that dog would come bouncing out barking and jumping like a dog out of Hell. It was only the fence that would keep him from biting you. No one ever talked to “The Russian.” You could see him sometimes in his yard smoking his pipe, but he lived alone. I was afraid of him.
But there’s more to the story. It began on my First Communion Day. Many of you here who are having your First Communion today are planning a party afterwards. After my First Communion we also had a party. And at the party I received some gifts. The best gift was from my Aunt Josie. She gave me a wiffle ball set. Now you might not know what a wiffle ball is. But it is a plastic ball about this big. It’s hollow and has big holes in it. There is also a big bat that comes with it that is also hollow and very light. The good thing about a wiffle ball set is that you can hit that ball as hard as you want and it doesn’t go too fast, and because it is not heavy, if it hits something or someone, there is no damage done. So wiffle balls were great for playing in crowded neighborhoods, and my wiffle ball set was a big hit with my friends. All through the summer we would play wiffle ball after supper in the street.
Well one day I was at bat and the ball came to me. I hit it as hard as I could, and that ball flew off my bat, over the fence, into “The Russian’s” yard. All my buddies just looked in silence. They shook their heads and said, “This game is over.” They patted me on the back as they went home saying, “You’ll never see that ball again.” But I could see it. It was caught in a bush just inside “The Russian’s” fence. I knew that if I went to the fence and pushed my hand in as far as I could, I could get it back. But when I got to the fence, right next to the bush was Hell Hound. He had his eyes on me, and he was growling. I knew that if I pushed my arm through the fence, I would lose it. I went home sad.
But that night in bed I made a decision. I was not going to give up. Even though I was afraid, I was going to ask “The Russian” to give me my ball back. So the next morning I got up, crossed the street, and stood right in front of the gate. There was no need to knock. As soon as I got there Hell Hound came running out of the house. He was barking, and jumping, and throwing himself up against the fence. But I just stood there and waited. After a few moments the front door opened and “The Russian” came out. He was big. He was moving slowly down the front steps and he had his eye on me. But I did not move. I just waited. As he got closer he grasped Hell Hound by the collar—I was happy about that—and then he opened the gate. What I wanted to say was “Could I have my wiffle ball back, please.” But all the words left me, and I just stood there with my mouth open. Then “The Russian” shook his head slightly, reached into his jacket, and pulled out my wiffle ball. “I ‘tink dis belongs to you.” he said. “Don’t let it happen again.” “I won’t,” I said. I grabbed the ball and ran home.
My thoughts about “The Russian” changed that day. We never became friends. But ever after that, as I was riding my bike down the street, if I would see him in his yard smoking his pipe, I would yell out and wave. And he would look up and give me a little nod.
I tell you this story on First Communion Day, because I think it helps explain what we are doing here. Many of you young people are making your First Communion for the first time. Many of us here are making Communion for the thousandth time. We know that when we receive Communion, Jesus comes to us in a real way. But Christ comes to us for a purpose: he wants us to be better to one another. In life we will run into some different people, some strange people, some difficult people. Jesus wants us to give them the benefit of the doubt. They might not be as bad or as frightening as they seem. Jesus asks us to approach them with care and respect. This is what the disciples do in today’s gospel. They meet a stranger on the road and they do not dismiss him or ignore him. They walk with him and then invite him in to stay and eat with them. In that action they discover that the stranger is Jesus. So whenever we receive this Eucharist, whenever we gather at this table, Jesus is asking us to welcome the stranger, to treat people who are different with respect, because in doing so, we may find Jesus in them.