James Townsend was one of those men who just could not get a break in life. From the time he was very young, trouble seemed to follow him.
His father was physically abuse and his mother was too sick to take care of him. When the stock market crashed and the Great Depression hit they lost their home and young James turned to a life of crime. His first arrest came at the age of 10 and from that time on he was shuttled from one reform school to another.
During World War II he joined the Marines and life appeared to be turning around for the better. After the war, at the age of 19, he was able to land a job and married a young woman who soon became pregnant with twins. However, one night after losing badly at a poker game, he came home and shot his pregnant wife to death in the kitchen of their cabin. She died instantly along with the two lives that were growing within her. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
James was distraught and without hope. So he began to turn to God. At first, he started going to Mass in hopes that the prison officials would think he had changed and offer him parole for good behaviour. But he soon became friends with the prison chaplain, and the message of God’s love and mercy even for a cold-blooded murder such as he began to sink in. He gave his life over to Christ and allowed the Holy Spirit to change his heart. He began to reach out to other inmates to tell them about the same hope and mercy he had encountered in God.
Behind bars, James found a freedom that had eluded him when he was out in the world. The prison officials were impressed by the change in him and he was released after serving twenty years of his sentence.
He knew that his early release was a gift from God and he wanted to make the most of it. In particular, he wanted to do penance for his crimes so he considered joining an order of monks. But his heart was drawn to the Capuchin order of Franciscans and after several years of study and training, he was ordained a priest. During his almost forty years of ministry he witnessed to others about God’s power to change even the most hardened sinner and brought his message of hope to inmates throughout the world. God used him to soften many hearts and turn many lives around up until his death in June of 2011.
Brother James’ incredible story is living proof that God still works miracles among us. There is no one, no matter how sinful or wicked, who cannot be changed by giving his or her life over to the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can do that would make it impossible for God to change us and use us to touch others. If God can turn around the life of a murderer, what can he do with ordinary sinners like you and me?
Today’s first reading is from the book of the prophet Jonah. God had called him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the oldest and greatest city in the Assyrian empire. They were a particularly wicked and brutal people. Yet God wanted to offer them the opportunity to repent and to change. Our Heavenly Father’s love and mercy are so great because He knows the misery and despair that sin causes. He knows how evil-doing breaks hearts and ruins lives. In His love he cannot help but take pity on those who fail to recognize and live in His presence. So He never fails to offer again and again his gift of forgiveness and healing.
The same is true for us gathered here today. We have all fallen short of the ideals that Jesus preached. We have all failed to love. And yet we are called by God here to experience His mercy and forgiveness. No matter what we may have done in our past, God can help us overcome it and change us. We should never let guilt and shame over our past mistakes keep us from embracing the love of God today. We cannot change the past, but we can go forward into a future of hope by welcoming the mercy of God into our hearts and allowing it to change us.
Though we can always count on God to forgive us, we should be careful never to abuse His love. How would we feel if the people we loved kept on hurting us because they thought we would always forgive them? Though God is always willing to forgive us, He is offended when we take His love and mercy for granted. That is why Saint Paul warns us in the second reading that our time is running out. Because of His mercy God gives us time to repent, but that time is not as long as we think. We will eventually stand before the judgement seat of God to give an account of our lives and how we have taken advantage of the opportunities to change that He has given us. If we have kept putting it off, it will not go well with us. But if we accept the message with joy, we will witness miracles in our lives and stand before God with confidence.
With God there is always hope. He never abandons anyone He has created and redeemed in Christ. There is no heart He cannot touch, no mind He cannot enlighten and no life He cannot change. All we have to do is invite Him in, give Him our lives and let Him take care of the rest. If we trust Him with our lives, not only will we change but He will use us to touch the hearts of others. It is His promise to us in Christ. It can really happen if we repent, believe in the good news and follow Christ who calls us to a new and more abundant life.