Sunday, April 21, 2013
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2013
So many stories have emerged, so many people have been impacted by the events surrounding the horrendous bombing in Boston this past week. I was struck by one story in particular. The story of Jeff Bauman, a 27 year old spectator at the Marathon. As Jeff was standing by the sidelines, a man his age walked up, looked him in the eye, and dropped a bag at his feet, and walked away. Seconds later, the bag exploded, tearing through Jeff’s legs, both of which were eventually amputated below the knee.
Do we not ask, upon hearing such a story, “How could anyone do that?” How could you look someone in the eye while simultaneously placing a bomb under their feet? How cold hearted, how numb and hateful must someone be? Isn’t this really the same kind of question we asked after the Newtown shootings, after many acts of violence that we hear of in our world. How can a person become so callous, so heartless, so detached?
But it is clearly possible. And not only is it possible, but it seems that we are living in a society where social detachment, isolation, and eventual callousness toward others is becoming more commonplace.
There is no need to cite the massive sociological evidence, I think most of us recognize that we have become a more disconnected society, a society where even the most basic of human bonds and connections seem to be unraveling. Between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends, citizens and politicians, believers and bishops. Our social capital, a term used by sociologists to describe the connections between people in society, our social capital has been waning.
There has been an attempt by some to categorize this as a youth problem, and to speak of a wave of narcissism that is infecting our young people basically because they are spoiled. We hear them referred to as generation ‘Me.’ But narcissism refers to an elevated opinion of oneself and one’s own needs – an obsession with one’s own life and accomplishments. I don’t believe that is what is going on. It is not that our children think that they are the center of the universe, it is that their experience is increasingly one of living in a universe that is not shared. And it is not just the young, although perhaps they have received the strongest dose of it – we all have become more and more isolated in recent years.
Think about life before computers and cell phones and souped up cable packages. That was not long ago – just 15 years ago. What was your life like then? How engaged were you in the lives of others? It’s not as if the time that we now spend with all of these screens somehow has just appeared in the last few years – we used to spend it in other ways. How much of your day used to be a shared experience of reality with others, how much of it is a shared experience now? It seems to be an increasing epidemic that in nearly every circumstance people are found with their faces glued to a smartphone or ipad or computer screen or tv. We have the strong sense that this checking out of reality is not healthy, but so many of us can’t seem to articulate why, and can’t seem to draw a line in the sand, to delineate how much of our lives will be consumed by this kind of virtual life. Increasingly, we are struggling to manage the technological tools that we have created. And it is becoming more and more clear that a technologically fostered lifestyle of isolation and radical individualism is developing into a tremendous threat to our families, our society, and to our Church.
We who follow Christ cannot allow ourselves to continue in this slow and easy drifting away from real intimacy with one another, with our world, and with our God. Catholic families must begin to take a counter-cultural stand, particularly with their children, not so much against a lifestyle of technological isolation, but in favor of a lifestyle of intimacy with God, with one another, and with our world that is rooted in the truth we hear proclaimed in the Gospel today.
Jesus teaches us that we belong to him, that we are his sheep, members of his flock. We do not belong to ourselves, we do not act in isolation. This is not a universe that is ours to construct or deconstruct as we desire. We belong to Christ, and not only do we belong to him, but we belong to his world and to his people, to all people, and all people belong to us in varied ways. Our identity is never in isolation, but always in relation to God, to others, and to our world.
This understanding of our identity cannot remain merely an abstract notion, but must lead to a lifestyle that we might call a “lifestyle of belonging.” What does this lifestyle of belonging look like? It means that we live in a way that is fundamentally in reference to God, to others, and to our world, rather than in reference to ourselves. We acknowledge that our actions are not isolated or detached, but that we share a reality in which God, other persons, and the natural world have a claim on us.
We belong to our Triune God, and so we acknowledge that in giving us life and sustaining us in life he makes a claim on us: to follow his commandments, to keep holy the Sabbath each week and to offer our prayers and supplications to him each day, asking him for his blessing. And we work to carry out his commandments diligently and faithfully, since, again, we belong to him, we are the sheep of his flock and he is our shepherd.
Christ has shown us that our actions must acknowledge not only that we belong to him, but that each person belongs to Christ and so he has a claim on all human persons who he has redeemed at the cost of his blood. All persons are members of his flock, either potentially or actually. All have been invited to green pastures by our shepherd. This means that every person we encounter has a claim on us, is a neighbor – as the Good Samaritain knew. We can never pass by the existence of another, much less be callous or dismissive or malicious to another. And this is particularly the case with regard to the primary relationships of life: to embrace a lifestyle of belonging means to acknowledge by our actions each day the claim that our spouses make upon us, that our parents make upon us, that our children make upon us, and at a lesser level, that our friends make upon us, our church and community make upon us, our country makes upon us, our work makes on us. And much could be said about how when we live a lifestyle of belonging, we acknowledge the claim that the natural world makes upon us and work to cooperate with nature rather than to pretend that we can mold reality to fit our desires.
Rather than resenting these claims on our us, rather than resenting the fact that we are not self-possessed, the Christian rejoices in belonging to God and to others and to our world. We hear that Sts. Paul and Barnabas were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit as they carried out their work as instruments of God’s salvation. And as we look at the response to the violence in Boston in these last days, do we not likewise see many men and women who found great joy and peace, great meaning, in belonging to others? Fire fighters and police and other emergency personnel who had a deep sense of belonging to the citizens they served. Health care professionals who knew they belonged to the sick and suffering. Even those parents and children and friends and neighbors who knew that they belonged to one another, who acknowledged by their actions that others had a claim on their lives. Who, unlike that young bomber, acknowledged that the gaze of another human being, made in the image and likeness of God, made a claim on them that could not be ignored. Christ teaches us that when we freely embrace a lifestyle of belonging, when we recognize the truth that we are members of his flock, we find great joy in serving those who we belong to, great meaning and peace in the intimacy that we have with God, with others, and with our world.
It is true that we can, to an extent, acknowledge that we belong to others in our use of technology. We can call relatives and friends more often on cell phones, we can share photos of important happenings in our life on facebook. I don’t forget as many birthdays now, thanks to facebook, which is great. But our technological world tends to make us into mere observers of others and to undermine our sense of being connected to them in a real way that makes a claim on our lives. And this can have a particularly detrimental effect on relationships that are most intimate and therefore exert the greatest claim upon us: our relationship with God, our spouses, parents, and children. And so we must moderate our time observing others, moderate our time being entertained by others. To be constantly on guard against the tendency to live as if we were entirely self-possessed, for our families to drift apart, to live as if we did not belong to God, to one another, to our world, as if we were not a part of the one flock of our Good Shepherd. How easily the wolves take down a sheep who has isolated himself and refused to acknowledge the claim of the shepherd, the claim of the flock on his life. Christ teaches us that joy and peace and eternal life are given to us when we freely embrace the truth: that we belong to him and to one another and to our world, that we are the sheep of the flock that he shepherds.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 2013
In the last part of the Gospel passage that we hear today, Jesus speaks to Peter, who he has just fully forgiven after his betrayal, about the way that his life will now unfold. He says “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
It has been suggested that this passage applies to all who follow in the footsteps of Peter as pope. We might think of the recent election of Pope Francis and how he was dressed in the white cassock by others and led to the loggia where he would begin a very challenging ministry.
But, this passage, I think, can and should actually be understood as significant for all of us. Look at what Jesus is doing: he is reversing the normal order of things. Normally when you are young, you stretch out your hands and someone else dresses you and leads you where you do not want to go. Then, when you are old, you dress yourself and go where you want.
So Christ is, in effect, telling Peter, that his love of Christ, his path of discipleship will give him the faith of a child. And the same applies to all of us: in loving Christ, in responding to his question “do you love me” with a true “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” we too, become more like children, we love more like children.
How does a childlike disciple love God? As Christ said: by obeying and by being clothed by Him. And we see evidence of how childlike Peter’s love for Christ became in the first reading today: He tells the Sanhedrin “We must obey God rather than men.” That almost sounds to me like “My mommy doesn’t let me do that.” Peter is very articulate as he explains the Good News of Christ, but in the end, the final motivation for Peter is clear: he must obey Christ. That is what his love of Christ demands, obedience. And this is very childlike.
And then we see that after he and the others are flogged, they rejoice, the author of Acts tells us, to be have been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Jesus’ name. And this also reminds us of children and how much they desire to be associated with those they love, to be, in a sense, clothed by them, to be visibly and tangibly connected to those they love. It is not just any dad, but my daddy. Even when they must endure many hardships, children will do just about anything in order to belong to a family. And this is also a childlike love of Christ, a love that rejoices in belonging to Christ, even when that requires suffering.
Do we love Jesus as Children? Do we rejoice to belong to him, to be associated with his name? Do we seek above all things to be obedient to him and his will for us?
At youth ministry last week we read this same passage from the scriptures about Peter jumping out of the boat after hearing that it was Christ on the shore. One of the kids said, “Hey, that reminds me of that scene in Forest Gump.”
And it got me thinking about Forest Gump, who exhibited this same abandon as he jumped into the water, and about how he was such a portrait of a childlike love. Think of his unquestioning obedience throughout the movie, and his steadfast devotion and intense desire to be associated with his Jenny.
Now these traits of childlike love do not mean that we leave behind reason when we deepen our faith, that somehow faith and sophistication and intelligence are opposed. Yet it can happen that as we grow older the complexity and subtlety of our reasoning develops improperly into the sophisticated ability to rationalize an insubordinate or lukewarm response to God.
Christ tells us that the opposite progression characterizes the Christian disciple who is animated by God’s love. That because of our love for Christ, our age and wisdom strengthens our obedience to the will of God and our desire to belong to Christ and to be associated with his name.
Monday, April 1, 2013
Homily for Easter Sunday, 2013
Imagine for a moment if the tomb had not been empty. Imagine if when Mary Magdalene entered the garden on the morning after the Sabbath, she had found the Lord’s crucified body where they had left it and gently covered it with spices and perfumed oils and then rolled back the stone and departed.
We wouldn't be talking about any of these obscure men and women from 1st century Palestine today, would we? They would not even be on the radar. They would have faded away in the dust bin of human history – Peter, John, Mary, Martha, the other disciples – their names would be unknown to us. And so most of us would have different names: maybe Julius, or Iris, or Evan, or Nike. Maybe our names would sound like car names. And we would not have any awareness of the Jewish faith either, since it has only been handed on to us through the Church. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – these would be obscure figures to us, certainly more obscure than the great names of the Egyptian, Syrian, Celtic, or Mayan peoples.
As we looked back over the last two thousand years, we would still see hundreds of years of violent wars, intense rivalries, plagues, atrocities. We would probably study the lives of the great and powerful men and women who shaped their times, the Caesars and Napoleons, the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons. Mostly men, portraits of human greatness, whose achievements were superlative enough to generate a legacy that would weather the test of time. But we would know nothing of the hundreds of simple, humble, poor saintly men and women whose lives we have treasured through the ages and whose intercession we have sought. The young women Perpetua and Felicity who heroically offered their lives for Christ, St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica who demonstrated a practical life of work and prayer, St. Anthony of Padua who still helps us find things, St. Francis and Clair who inspire us to live simple and generous lives, St. Therese of Lisieux and her little way, St Maximillian Colbe who courageously sacrificed his life for a little child at Auschwitz. How many other holy men and women, how many quietly heroic lives would we know nothing about?
And at a deeper level, might we wonder whether these men and women would have existed at all? They told the world, they have told us that the source of their holiness, of their great love, was not their own, their personal greatness, their worldly accomplishments, but the life of Christ risen from the dead whose risen life animated them. Would others, not filled with Christ, have lived so generously? Would they have found the same strength and inspiration and joy and peace and overflowing love somewhere else?
Where? Where, my friends, to where would they have turned? To themselves? To others? To an unknown and distant god?
No. They would simply not have existed. Saints do not exist if Easter does not exist. And so our world, the world as we know it, would be so much darker, so closed upon itself, so stale and depressing. If the tomb had not been empty, if it had been closed on Easter morning, our world would be empty, it would be empty and closed in on itself. Life would be claustrophobic, the scent of death would constantly hang in the air. Time and space would be flat and bland and boring. Without an empty tomb, life would be a tomb to us.
Easter reminds us that Christ, risen from the dead, has changed our world, has made our world new, so much closer to God, that we cannot even begin to imagine, to comprehend what life would be like without the empty tomb.
My life would be a joke, and a miserable one at that. What would your lives be like? Were it not for the great example of Christ loving me, loving my family, from the cross – loving us in our sinfulness in confession, nourishing our souls in the Eucharist, consoling us with his words, urging us on with the promptings of his Holy Spirit – what kind of man would I be, what kind of life would I live? What kind of men and women would we be? We are all bad enough sinners as it is, but just think of all the misery, the pain and suffering, the evil that would overwhelm us if the tomb had not been empty!
Today we proclaim the great news of Easter: that the empty tomb has given us the fullness of life! Christ, risen from the dead, has raised us up, raised us so high beyond our understanding, beyond our ability to even comprehend. He emptied himself so that we could have the fullness of life. He died so that we could rise. He has suffered so that we can find joy. He has endured hatred so that we can find love.
The new life, the risen and eternal life of Christ animates our world, animates us, encourages us, urges us on, draws us together, and challenges us to be holy as our Heavenly Father is holy, to love as he loves, to live as he lives.
It is amazing how something so empty can be so full of life! New life pours from the empty tomb, pours from the side of Christ who was pierced for our offenses but who has been raised and who now lives and moves among us, his people, alive in our world. Alleluia!
Lord, give us your new life! Give it to us in abundance this Easter. Let it soak into your church, into us, like gentle rain upon fertile ground. Keep us always in your love, keep us always in your life. Keep the stone always rolled away, the tomb always empty, and our world always full of your life, close to your risen heart, your risen body and soul, close to our salvation.