God does not measure goodness; you are already good, says Fr. Gregory Boyle

Ya gotta love the Homeboys. 

“So, Manuel and Pancho and I were going to speak at Palm Desert High School,” said Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, July 20, morning ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “When the Wave Knows It’s an Ocean,” and the Scripture text was Mark 10:17-22. 

As they drove to the high school, Manuel got a text, chuckled about it and put his phone away. 

“I asked him what was so funny,” Boyle said.

Manuel said it was from Snoopy, back in the office. Manuel and Snoopy work together in the room where the Homies clock in every morning. 

“The Homies can sometimes be attitudinal,” Boyle said. “I would not want their job.”

Snoopy had sent Manuel this text: 

“Dog, my ass is at the jail for being the ugliest butthole in America. Come show them they got the wrong guy.”

Boyle said they almost veered into oncoming traffic, and were “laughing from the stomach, as the Homies say.”

Manuel and Snoopy were from rival gangs and used to shoot guns at each other. 

“Now they shoot texts at each other,” Boyle said. “They came to know the truth about themselves.”

Boyle said at Homeboy Industries they are allergic to making people measure up to some artificial standard.

“Our exhausted God doesn’t measure,” Boyle said. “God holds up a mirror so you can see exactly who you are, how God made you. And no bullet, no prison wall, even death can’t touch that.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is approached by a rich man who wants eternal life. 

“The man thinks eternal life is something to get,” Boyle said. “ ‘Gotta get me some of that,’ the man thinks. Jesus looks at him with love and invites him into the fullness of life. Following Jesus is not a grim duty.”

Jesus saved us to ourselves, not from ourselves, Boyle told the congregation. The words “saved” and “salvation” come from the Latin meaning “whole” or “to make whole.” 

“Thich Nhat Hanh called this enlightenment, but I like wholeness,” Boyle said. “Wholeness is when the wave realizes it is the ocean.”

One day Caesar, who worked in the Homeboy Bakery, came in to talk with Boyle. He had a hard, even tortuous, life. 

“He has surrendered to his own healing,” Boyle said. “He held his pain and was curious about it until it was transformed and not transmitted. I stood in awe of how he carried his pain, rather than the way he carried it.”

“I love the bakery, baking bread and taking it home,” Caesar told Boyle. “My mother is proud of me, and my kids are not ashamed of me. You know who I have to thank for this job?” 

Boyle looked a bit sheepish and asked, “Who?” 

“Well, God of course,” Caesar said. “You thought I was going to say you, didn’t you? It is a good thing we are not living in the Genesis days because God would have struck your ass down by now.”

Caesar continued, “I used to be a nobody, but now I am a somebody. I am never going to be a nobody again.”

“And the soul felt its worth,” Boyle said. “As the Buddhists say, ‘O nobly born, remember who you really are.’ ”

Jesus asked the rich man, “Why do you call me good?” 

Boyle said this was an odd question. There can only be good people if there are bad people. 

“Jesus and God want to know what all this measuring is about. Why measure goodness?” Boyle asked. “God does not want you to be good — you already are. There are two truths that are our starting points. We are unshakably good, no exceptions. We belong to each other, no exceptions.”

Boyle was at a conference on gangs in San Francisco as a speaker and a participant. One speaker was talking about the program he was a part of and pounded the podium, saying, “Listen, people, this program works.”

Boyle wrote in his notebook, “Yeah, but it doesn’t help.”  

As he reflected on why he wrote that thought, Boyle said, “Not everything that works, helps. But everything that helps, works. I went to Mass every Sunday of my youth because I was afraid of going to hell. It worked, but I couldn’t make the case that it helped.”

Jesus invited the rich man into the fullness of life. 

“God longs for us to be joyful. God is not interested in our behavior. It helps, so it works,” Boyle said. “If we think there are good and bad people, we are not even trying. The Homies taught me that we are all just God’s people.”

During President George W. Bush’s administration, Boyle, Gus, Herbie and Gabriel went to a conference at Howard University; Laura Bush invited them to the White House for dinner.  

“This was not the first time there were crooks in the White House, but it was probably the first time to invite gang members to dinner,” Boyle said.

Gabriel worked as a tour guide at Homeboys. He would greet people with a brilliant smile, take them to the tattoo removal location and give them goggles to watch a procedure. He would then take them to the bakery and give them a hairnet so they could watch the bread baking.

When the group got to the White House, there was a buffet for dinner. 

“It was the most elegant buffet I had ever seen,” Boyle said. “I went back nine times.”

One of the times Boyle went back to the buffet, Gabriel was there. He picked up a small finger potato with a hole carved in it that contained caviar and a dollop of crème fraîche. Gabriel popped it into his mouth and then looked for some place to spit it out.

Not using his inside voice, Gabriel said, “This shit tastes nasty.”

“I told you this part of the story to get to this next part,“ Boyle told the Chautauqua congregation. 

On the plane the next day, Gabriel got up to use the restroom in the back of the plane. He did not come back for 45 minutes. When he returned, Boyle asked him what had happened.

“I was talking to that lady (the flight attendant) back there, and I made her cry. Hope that is OK,” Gabriel said. 

“That depends on what you said,” Boyle answered. 

Gabriel said she had seen his Homeboy shirt and had asked him some questions. 

“So at 30,000 feet he took her on a tour of Homeboy, introducing her to the staff, showing her the tattoo removal and the bakery,” Boyle said.

“Then I told her we had made history,” Gabriel said. “It was the first time that three gang members went to the White House and had dinner. By the way, the food was nasty. Then she cried.”

“Mijito, she just got a glimpse of you,” Boyle said to Gabriel. “She saw you are somebody, in the shape of God’s heart. People cry when they see that.”

Boyle returned to the idea of human goodness.

“We are all unshakably good. We are waves realizing we are the ocean,” Boyle said. “We inhabit the truth of whoever we are and the soul feels its worth. ‘O nobly born, remember who you really are.’ ”

The Rev. J. Paul Womack, pastor of the Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, played “Adagio,” from Concerto in A Minor, BWV 593, by Johann Sebastian Bach after Vivaldi, for the prelude. For the anthem, the Motet Choir sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” music by Dan Forrest and words by Isaac Watts. The choir was accompanied by Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ, Barbara Hois on flute, and conducted by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. For the postlude, Stigall played “Allegro,” from Concerto in A minor, BWV 593 by Johann Sebastian Bach after Vivaldi. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Harold F. Reed Sr. Chaplaincy.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.