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.