Hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd

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Photo: Lehava Taybe via Wikimedia Commons

Homily for the 4th Sunday in Easter 2019

Acts 13-14, 43-52 || Revelation 7:9, 14B-17 || John 10:27-30

When I was studying Liturgy as a deacon, my professor told a story about an unsuitable song request for a Catholic funeral. And I heard the same story on several occasions afterwards from other priests, which led me to believe the story was a common occurrence.  People often ask that secular songs be used in a funeral mass for their loved one, and one of the most common requests is Frank Sinatra’s I Did it My Way.

Now many people love the song, but it’s entirely inappropriate for a Catholic funeral. It actually has a line that says, “For what is a man, what has he got? / If not himself, then he has naught / To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.”  As Catholics, we hope at the end of our lives and the lives of those we love that they… that we… did it not our way but God’s way. And we certainly do a lot of kneeling along the way.

Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear Jesus tell us, “The sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”

It’s often hard for us in a non-agricultural world to understand some of these metaphors that Jesus uses in his parables – images like mustard seeds, fig trees, camels going through the eye of a needle, and here. — sheep.  These images mean different things to us today. Acting like sheep being led in a flock, mindlessly obeying someone’s call, is anathema to our culture… to our sense here in 21st Century America of what it means to be a human being.

Today, we believe a person should be entirely self-sufficient, independent, autonomous – determining the course of their own life, according to their own standards.  Today’s literature, music, movies, television shows, Facebook feeds, and YouTube programming hang in the air like a kind of cultural ether we breathe in every day, inspiring us to be the heroes of our own story, the masters of our own destiny, the artists that craft our life out of our own thoughts and desires.

But Jesus asks us for something different.  He wants us to follow him as sheep would follow a shepherd. He wants us to listen for his voice because when we hear his voice and follow him, we follow God the Father.  As he says in the Gospel, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

When we her Jesus, we hear God the Father speaking to us.

Now, you may think that by living the life God wants for us, we will all be monolithically the same… uniform… indistinguishable like the sheep in a flock.  But that’s not the case.  God has given us each unique gifts and talents he wants us to use to become most fully the person we are meant to be in Christ.  One person’s way of being a follower of Christ will be different from another person and still another person and still another person after that.  We are all unique in the gifts and dispositions that God has given us to use in following him.

How do we hear what God wants for us?  How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd telling us the way to follow him? There is so much our faith tradition teaches how we discern the call God has for us, but I would like to focus on three suggestions.

First, silence.  We live in a tyranny of noise and distraction.  We can’t hear the words of the Good Shepherd calling us unless we take some time to be quiet and listen even if it’s 5 to 10 minutes a day.

Second, if we want to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, we have it in scripture.  We have Jesus’ words in the New Testament. A prayerful, deliberative, and thoughtful reading of the Gospels that allows us space to reflect on what Jesus is saying to us is a critical way of hearing his voice… of hearing where the Good Shepherd is calling us.

And third, taking some time at the end of the day to discern where you felt close to God during that day and where you felt far from God.  What moments… what people… what incidents in your life led you to feel you were being most fully the person God wants you to be? These could be signs to you of the direction God is calling you.

In the latter part of his career, Frank Sinatra grew to dislike singing I Did it My Way. On two occasions in the late 1970s, he told audiences he hated the song.  Some of his friends speculated that he was growing sick of the ego-centricity of the lyrics in the song because he was humbler than his public persona would indicate.  Perhaps, at the end of his life, he was growing in his Catholic faith.  Perhaps, he was most concerned with doing it God’s way.

When we listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, we hear what we are most fully meant to be in the eyes of God. The way God sees us as our unique self.  The way we can be most fully human. We learn we can be our most profound self when we do it God’s way.

Sadness and Anger and the Seeds of Doubt

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Easter 2019

Acts 5:12-16 || Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19 || John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel is the story where St. Thomas the Apostle gets saddled with the unfortunate nickname that will follow him throughout all of history: Doubting Thomas. I say it’s unfortunate because I think it’s a bit harsh to have poor Thomas known forever as Doubting Thomas. I think we need to cut Thomas a little slack.

I mean let’s look at what’s happening the in the story. Thomas was angry, upset, sad… probably depressed at the loss of his friend and teacher Jesus… a person Thomas to come to believe was the Messiah. This friend had just been humiliated, tortured and crucified. And you can hear all these feelings spill out in the bitter and disappointed tone of Thomas’s voice when he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nailmarks, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

During my formation as a deacon, I worked for as a chaplain for a summer at the Massachusetts General Hospital, where I encountered many people struggling with serious illness. Oftentimes, it wasn’t the sick person who found their faith challenged… it was the friend or loved one, who would say something to me along the lines of “How can God let my mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, son, daughter, or friend suffer.” Watching a loved one suffer a painful death and pass from us can cause anyone to question to God… to doubt

And what his friends, the other Apostles, are asking Thomas to believe is a challenging proposition. That Jesus rose from the Dead, passed through a locked door and appeared to them, saying “Peace be with you,” breathing on them, and telling him to receive the Holy Spirit.

So, in his anger, depression and bitterness, Thomas struggles believing that Jesus has appeared after his death.

I also think there is a little jealousy at play here. Thomas may be thinking, why me? Why am I the only one who didn’t get to see Jesus? Why couldn’t Jesus wait until I showed up?

Jesus’ bodily resurrection is a central belief in Christianity. Without it, Christianity is just a nice ethical theory about how God loves us, and we should be kind to each other. But as Catholics, we believe that through Jesus’ suffering, dying and rising, God conquered death and sin and opened up the possibility of eternal life for all of us… the possibility for all of us to live a life filled with the spirit of God’s love for one another and the knowledge that the bonds of love we forge with our friends and family are not broken by death.

We believe in the resurrection because we have the testimony of several witnesses written down for us. Just a few decades after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the Apostles began to write down his story as a testimony for others.

John tells us in this Gospel reading “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. “

And several evangelists did this — they wrote down the story of Jesus — independently of each other, in different places and at different times, relying upon different witnesses. So, it wasn’t as if they were collaborating to create a big hoax. They didn’t have the Internet, or email, or the telephone – or anything like a reliable postal service. They were writing what they had seen and experienced.

We also believe in the resurrection because of the miracle of what happens to the followers of Jesus after he appears to them. Today’s gospel tells us the disciples were in hiding, fearful that they would be persecuted just like Jesus. Yet between the appearance of Jesus and Pentecost, the disciples go through a radical transformation. They go from being fearful and discouraged to being bold and evangelistic. They stop hiding and start proclaiming the Gospel – even in the face of martyrdom and imprisonment. These disciples, who probably never traveled and farther than the 60 or 70 miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem suddenly travel up into Turkey and throughout Europe spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The power of Jesus resurrection, and ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit causes them to upend their lives so they can share this message – this miracle – with as many people as possible.

When Portuguese missionaries arrived on the West Coast of India in the 16th century they discovered a group of Christians who had been living there for over 1,000 years. And these Indian Christians told the Portuguese their Church was founded by… guess who? Thomas the Apostle… the one who doubted Jesus resurrection. In fact, to this day, this group today is known as St. Thomas Christians.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” And when he says this, Jesus is speaking to you and to me.

All of us struggle with belief – especially at moments when we suffer or when we see people suffer as Thomas saw Jesus suffer. But when we remain close to God by participating in the sacramental life of the Church… when engage with the testimony of the Apostles in scripture, we encounter Christ as Thomas did, and we can hear him say to us if we just listen, “Peace be with you.”

Lost Sons and Daughters

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Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent 2019

Joshua 5:9A, 10-12 || 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 || Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

My youngest brother Kevin was always in the habit of getting lost whenever we went out to any public place like a supermarket, an amusement park, or a shopping center.  The thing about Kevin’s getting lost is that he never really thought he was lost. From his point of view, we were the ones who weren’t keeping up with him. I remember one time when we went to Disneyland and Kevin did his usual disappearing act only to turn up at an information booth telling the employee, “My family is lost. Can you help me find them?”

Often in the spiritual life, when we have drifted and away from God, we don’t know we are lost until a dramatic turn-of-events makes us realize that we’ve wandered far from our connection to God.  In the Gospel, the prodigal son goes his own way, not knowing how lost he will become.

It’s an illustration of how we all fall into sinfulness. Sin is — at its core — a rejection of our relationship with God and a desire to replace that relationship with things that we think we need. But, in reality, these things can never replace our connection to God. And sometimes, we have to hit rock bottom to understand that… we have to feel a real emptiness that comes from trying to supplant the love of God with the things of this world for us to understand that we have traveled too far from the God and — in this sense — that we are lost.  For the prodigal son it means being stuck tending pigs, desperately wishing to eat the food that was fed to them.

So too, for us, sometimes need to reach a turning point before we recognize that we are lost… that we have put too much distance between ourselves and God. Occasionally, all of us need to stop and ask, “What are the things that I do to put space between me and God and how can I remove these things from my life?”  That’s the essence of the Lenten journey.

Father Henri Nouwen suggests that one of the challenges of the spiritual life is to believe that God’s love is so boundless that he can forgive us like the father does in this story… that he has no desire to punish us.  If we look at this parable, nowhere do we see the father wanting to call the prodigal son to task.  Nowhere do we see the father wanting to reprimand him. In fact, he does just the opposite.  He throws a party.

When my brother Kevin was on one of his little side trips, I remember my Mom or Dad saying something along the lines of — “I’m going to kill him when I get my hands on him.”  And yet, when they found him, all they wanted to do was give him a big hug.  He was lost and then he was found.  The father in this story is like any mother or father who waits up because their teenager is late getting home and then is grateful when they walk through the door… or who feels a wave of relief when their child is lost in a public place and is returned to them.  In this way, this story invites us to reflect on how the love of the God is like the unconditional love that parents feel for their child. I can’t imagine anything my son or daughter could do to alienate me from them… to make me stop loving them. And I bet — if you have children — when you think of your relationship to them, you think: “As much as they drive me crazy or make me mad, I can’t imagine ever not loving them.”

Then there is the older son… the one that was always faithful. I was the oldest son in our family and like a lot of first-born children, I was super responsible… I was always trying to do the right thing.  In fact, sometimes it was my job to keep an eye on Kevin. So, I was often thinking, when Kevin was on one of his wandering adventures, “Yeah, Mom and Dad, I hope you do kill him when you find him because he really deserves it.”

You see, the older brother is concerned with justice, not mercy… with judgement not acceptance… with retribution, not forgiveness.  He can’t understand that boundless, unlimited love the father has for both his sons.  The older son thinks that love is something that should be parceled out in doses to people based on how well they behave.  Not just because of who they are… not simply because they are a member of a family. But God’s love is not like that – it doesn’t have to be parceled out in small doses because it is infinite. It is inexhaustible. It knows no bounds. It covers all things. It covers all people – saints and sinners alike.

As we move through this Lent, I invite you to reflect on the ways in which you embody the father or the prodigal son or the older son.  The Lenten journey is one of moving toward God, knowing that we are so infinitely loved that we will always be welcomed no matter what we have done.  It’s also a journey where we rejoice when others return to the Father, putting aside our need for justice or judgement and replacing it with mercy, forgiveness and compassion.  It’s a journey where all of us learn to fill our hearts with unconditional love for the other person the way God’s heart is filled with unconditional love for us.

Witnessing for Christ in the Subway and other Small Acts of Discipleship

 

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Homily for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2019

Isaiah 6:1-2A, 3-8 || First Corinthians 15:1-11  || Luke 5: 1 – 11

If you ever travel as I do between the Green Line and North Station during the evening commute, you will invariably see two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing next to a portable literature rack that contains pamphlets about their faith. They are well dressed, very friendly, and if you catch their eye, they will give you a warm smile. They aren’t very aggressive.  If you speak to them, they will speak to you.  Otherwise, they just stand there as you go on your way through the tunnel connecting the subway to the commuter rail.

They call what they are doing witnessing…witnessing to their faith… They are out there in the public as disciples.

As I passed by them this week, it made me wonder what do we – you and I – do to witness to our Catholic Christian faith? How do present ourselves to the world as disciples of Christ?

The three readings today talk about our call to be witnesses to our faith.  Through our baptism, we are all called to be disciples.  At your baptism, the priest or deacon touched your ears and lips, saying “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith to the Glory of God the Father.” It is your baptismal call – your obligation as a Catholic – to proclaim the Catholic faith.

But, as I see it, there are two reasons we don’t do this as much as we should.

First, we live in multicultural, multi-religious society that is increasingly becoming secular. And in this environment, we often sidestep any talk that highlights our differences to avoid making each other feel uncomfortable.  You’ve often heard the phrase – “Don’t discuss religion and politics.”

But we have to get beyond this fear of offending others.  At the very least, we must be able to respond to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?

The second reason that we shy away from being a visible disciple of Christ is because we don’t feel we are up-to-the challenge. We don’t think that we are smart enough… or holy enough.  But who is?  I mean look at the three readings for today – they all involve people called to be disciples who feel unworthy of the call.

In the first reading, we hear the prophet Isaiah say, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”  In the second reading, Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God.”  In the Gospel reading, Peter sees his fishing nets miraculously bursting at the seams and he drops to his knees, saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

None of these people feel holy enough.

And if you are wondering whether you feel up-to-the-task intellectually, consider St. Peter.  He didn’t have an advanced degree in philosophy of theology.  He didn’t go to college – or whatever the equivalent was in those days.  He was a fisherman, with a very limited education.  And yet, Jesus chose him to be the rock upon which he would build his church… the leader of the Apostles… his top disciple.  You don’t need to have the mind and learning of a Thomas Aquinas.   You just need to be able to communicate from the heart why you have faith… why you believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Catholic Church.

But even more important than your ability to articulate the reason you are a Catholic is the way you live your life.   The way you express your faith in worship and the way you care for others will speak so much louder than words. Being a disciple means be-ing a disciple in ways that go beyond words. Jesus gave us two commandments –  to love the Lord and to love one another.  We witness to our family and friends when they see us love the Lord by worshiping God and participating in the sacramental life of the church. And we also witness to them when we go out of our way to show them compassion, patience and love.

To give you an example, I want to close this homily by sharing another subway story.

A couple of weeks ago, I was riding the Orange Line to Back Bay Station.  I noticed an older woman sitting across from me.  She was quietly praying the rosary…  slowly fingering the beads as she said each Hail Mary to herself, her eyes closed in meditation.  There, in a crowded subway, in the midst of the all these people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes, she was quietly witnessing to her Catholic faith.  She was being a disciple for Christ.

Remembering Deceased Members of the Harvard Class of 1983 at Memorial Church

Emerson Hall

“What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him,” Emerson Hall, Harvard Yard.

 

I was asked to offer a reflection at my 35th Harvard College reunion for our fellow classmates who have died.  We have lost 57 members of the Class of 1983, many of whom were my friends, and we held a reunion service for them, as we do every five years at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.  

Memorial Reflection

When I was a philosophy student here I would walk in and out of Emerson Hall several times a week, and I’d look up at the inscription at the top of the building which says, “What is man that thou art mindful of him,” and I’d ponder its meaning.  It comes from the Bible… from Psalm 8, which asks us to wonder what it means to be a human being. What makes us so important that God thinks about us.  What makes us — as the Psalmist says in the next line — little less than a God.

St. Augustine, in The Confessions tries to answer those questions. He writes about memory, and how memory helps define us as being humans and makes us a little less than a God.  The whole book of The Confessions is about Augustine remembering… remembering his life, his failures, his struggles, the people he loved. And in one of the most poignant, moving parts of that book, remembering his beloved mother Monica.

God is mindful of us because we can be mindful of God and because we can be mindful of each other.  We can hold each other in our memory… those of us who are here and those of us who have passed on.

Remembering the dead spans cultures and religions. I like to walk around Lake Quannapowit in Wakefield, just about 15 miles north of here, near where I live. There’s a large Jewish cemetery along the lake, and as I walk by I see all those rocks that have been placed on the gravestones of people to show that someone was there… that someone was there to remember.  In Mexico on el Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — whole families spend time at the graves of their loved ones.  In certain parts of China, they celebrate something called “Tomb Sweeping Day,” when people remember their ancestors by cleaning their grave sites.

If you think of it, here in Harvard Yard, memory is all around us. We are surrounded by buildings that prompt us to remember the dead.  We are in Memorial Church, which recalls those who died in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam…  Across the way is Memorial Hall built to remember the Union dead of the Civil War. Throughout the Yard are buildings that memorialize people who gave their time, talent and treasure to the University. Pennypacker, Stoughton, Wigglesworth, Grays, Hollis… the list goes on.  We probably couldn’t appreciate it as Freshmen living here, so young… so untouched by death… so far away from our own mortality … but in many ways, Harvard Yard is one big memorial to the those who have died.

Think about Harry Elkins Widener. For me, the most moving memorial here is Widener Library, a way for Eleanor Elkins Widener to console herself at the death of her son Harry on the Titanic.   A way for her to remember.

I remember Jeff Goldsby.  And maybe some of you do as well.  I remember his big personality — a surfer from Newport Beach, California who loved to laugh and have fun. I remember how he would travel to any Grateful Dead concert within a 300-mile radius of Cambridge. I remember him teaching me how to surf in the men’s room of Weld North using a big piece of cardboard. Jeff loved to look out from his window on the third floor of Weld Hall and to check out what was going on in the Yard. And I remember how one day as I was walking up the steps of Widener Library on my way to study in the stacks, I heard him, in his booming voice calling out to me loud enough to stop several groups of tourists in their tracks and make them look up at him, “Hey O’Shie” — that was my nickname — “Hey O’Shie, say hello to Harry for me.”  Jeff, who I remember now wanted me to remember him to Harry Elkins Widener.

Memories of those who have passed are always connected to love and, through love, to forgiveness. Have you ever noticed how well we speak of the dead?   We always tend to remember and tell the stories that are joyful… happy… funny. Whatever faults they had tend to recede from our memory. And I think this is another way in which we are a little less than a God — as the Psalmist says — this capacity to express forgiveness and love in the memory we have of others.  For those who are basically good people, we do forget, we do forgive those small slights…  those small transgressions…. those small trespasses against us.

All of us here are on a pilgrimage through life together. One of the great things that I love about reunions is that it gives us a moment to stop and connect with each other while we are on this pilgrimage… to connect not only with our friends, but to get to know people that we might never have met during college and to deepen relationships with those we barely knew.  To tell stories. To draw on old memories and build new ones. And to remember our friends who have passed on.

Because memory is about relationships. Sure, we can remember places and things but it’s really the people in our lives who impress the deepest memories upon us. And these memories are what connect us. One of the prayers at a Catholic wake service has a line that goes like this: “My brothers and sisters, we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection that knit us together throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  Connections, relationships, the bonds of love that we build. So many things can pass from us, but these remain.

In my faith tradition, we believe we will all see each other again on the other side if we have lived a good, faithful life. That the reunions won’t end…. And that at our 70th or 80th or 90th or 100th reunion, we will all be together again.  Until then, lets continue to hold in our hearts and minds our friends who have gone on before us.  Let’s cherish each other.  And let’s always remember.

I am the vine. You are the branches. Homily for 5th Sunday of Easter

vines-and-mountainsI’m not much of a gardener but I remember my mom working in the garden. I can still see her taking her pruning shears through the branches of her rhododendrons removing the shoots that had withered up and were getting in the way of new branches.

This winter, with all the storms, we only have to look into our yards to see all those weak branches that fell as they were whipped around by the rain and the wind and weighted down by the snow.

Jesus tells us, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

To bear fruit, we must remain in Jesus. Now, what does that mean — to “remain” in Jesus? It means to be always connected to Him. And how do we stay connected to Him? Through prayer. Through regular attendance at mass and participation in the Eucharist. Through regular confession.

Today’s second reading has a little bit to say about this. John’s letter reminds us about the great commandment – to love God by believing in his son Jesus Christ and to love one another. Our faith is quite simple. Love God and love your neighbor.

It’s simple but it’s incredibly profound… profound and difficult… because it is so hard to really do those two things consistently.  I know there are times when I fail to show my love for God by attending to my daily prayer life the way I should. And there are times when I struggle to love my neighbor. And let’s face it some people are just really hard to love. We need Jesus to help us do these things.

To flourish… To bear fruit by living a life of holiness… a life of giving of oneself to others… A life of virtue… We can’t do this alone.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit because without me you can do nothing.” We need to allow Jesus to prune the way the dead branches of sin so that we can bear fruit.  We need to be open enough to allow him into our hearts and minds so he can work on us… so he can clear out all the deadwood of pride, anger, lust, laziness, envy and greed.

It’s a real challenge to acknowledge that we can’t do this alone… that we need to rely on Jesus.  In our culture, we value independence and self-reliance. Amazon.com offers us thousands of books on selfimprovement.  Self-help gurus make millions peddling the idea that you can make yourself a better person if you pay them money, go to their seminars and use the techniques they teach.  In the face of all this, it is an act of faith to say I can’t make myself a better person on my own — without the help of Jesus Christ.  And yet that is precisely the message of the Gospel we read today.

A few weeks ago, I was driving around town, and I noticed several people burning dead branches in their yards.  Between January 15th to May 1st in Massachusetts, we have something called “the burning season”.  You can go to town hall, get a permit and burn all the dead branches, and brush and other debris left by winter storms.

Jesus is telling us life is like the burning season.  God gives us a choice.  Go it alone… wrap ourselves in pride to the point where we whither — folded in on ourselves — no longer connected to the sap and marrow of Christ’s love.  Dry and unable to produce fruit.  Fit only as fuel for the fire.

Or we can remain in Jesus Christ.  We can rely upon his grace and live a life that produces good things.  A life that is rich in joy and abundant in blessing.  A life that can weather the storms of disappointment and suffering. A life always connected to Christ and rooted in God the Father.