A: 5th Sunday of Easter

Doing the Work of Christ

April 24, 2005

John 14:1-12

I know a number of people who would say that today’s gospel is their favorite passage of scripture. It is indeed an attractive image of Jesus as way to heaven, of Jesus going ahead of us to prepare a place for us in his father’s house. It is comforting to know that our belief in Jesus, as the way the truth and the life, is our means to eternal life. But if you listen to the gospel carefully, it is clear that it asks more of us than simply believing in Jesus. Jesus asks us not simply to believe in His name but to do His works. He says, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.” So belief is not sufficient in itself, it must be accompanied by the works that Christ calls us to do.

Now this is not to say that the works that we do in any way earn heaven or our relationship with God. Such gifts are always God’s grace. But since such gifts have been given to us, it is imperative for us to live in such a way that our work shows God’s love for us and our commitment to God. Believing is essential, but we must also work in such a way that we manifest God’s goodness.

A retired priest after a life long of ministry died and went to heaven. About the same time a man who had worked his whole life as a taxi cab driver died. The two of them arrived at the heavenly gates at the same time. St. Peter addressed the priest first, “Welcome father” he said, “we’re glad to have you here.” Then he gave the priest a clean white cotton gown and a wooded halo, and said, “Father you’ll be living in a little cottage over by the train tracks. It’s a bit noisy but it’s clean. You’ll like it.” The priest was somewhat discouraged about his accommodations in heaven so he decided to wait to see what the taxi driver would receive. St. Peter turned to the taxi driver with open arms, “Welcome we’ve been waiting for you. We are delighted that you are here at last.” Then he gave the taxi driver a silken white gown and a halo of solid gold. “We are putting you in one of our best properties—a thirty-room mansion on a 15 acre lot of prime heavenly real estate.” The taxi driver was delighted and went off to his heavenly abode. The priest decided to question St. Peter. He said “St. Peter, is there some mistake? Should I not receive a mansion too. I went to church every day, and I preached the word of God week in and week out.” St. Peter replied, “Sorry father, your place in heaven is gauged by the results of your work. When you preached, people slept. But when he drove, everyone prayed!”

The place to produce results is where we live and work. If our faith does not make some impact on the ordinary things we do day in and day out it is doubtful whether that faith is real. This is certainly the testimony of the scriptures. The great figures of the scriptures often encounter God in the midst of their work. Moses was a shepherd, and while tending the sheep he encountered God in the burning bush. When Jesus was born, the shepherds received the message of the angel while they were tending their sheep. The first apostles were fishermen and at their jobs when Christ came to call them. Matthew had a government job and met Christ while he was collecting taxes. Martha and Mary came to know and love Christ while worked in their home.

We should expect to encounter God in the midst of our work, and we should work in such a way that it is obvious to others that we are followers of Christ. After all, if we appear the same as everyone else in our day to day activities, if our faith does not some how set us apart, it is questionable how real our faith is. So wherever we work, whether it is in an office, whether our work now is going to school, whether our work is caring for a home or driving a truck or working on an assembly line or in a bank, whatever job we have, we need to work in such a way that it manifests that we are followers of Jesus.

Let me give you three qualities that I think can help us do this: integrity, compassion and witness.

Those that follow Christ work with integrity. They do not cheat on their algebra test or on their homework. They do not bend the rules of the office to their own advantage. They do not put others down to make themselves look good or to prime themselves for a promotion. People know that their word can be trusted, that they will make decisions based on the common good rather than their selfish ambition. Those who follow Christ work with integrity.

Those who follow Christ also work with compassion. They are aware of the people around them, whether the people in their home or the people on their job. They are willing to take time to listen to a child or to a spouse after a difficult day. They pick up clues from their co-workers of some problem or stress and let them know they are available for support. Those who follow Christ work with compassion.

Those who follow Christ are also willing to give witness to their faith. They are willing to let others know that they are Catholic, that they believe in Christ. This does not mean that they try to push their faith on other people. It definitely means that their faith is not something that they are trying to hide. They are willing to find ways to let others know that they believe in God and that they value that belief. This can be done in simple ways such as using God language. When talking to a co-worker and describing some good thing that happened in life, those who follow Christ are willing to name event as a “blessing from God.” They are willing to tell co-workers who are going through a difficult time that they will say a prayer for them. By acting in this way they witness that they are believers and testify that Christ makes a difference in their lives.

Jesus is the way the truth and the life. Our believing in him leads us to eternal joy. But faith is not sufficient in itself. It must be lived out in a way that it reflects God’s love in our lives. Those who are willing to live their lives with integrity, with compassion, and a willingness to witness identify themselves as true followers of Jesus. What will you do this week to make it clear to others that you are a believer? What will you do this week so that others might see God’s love in the work that you do?

 

Pope Benedict in the USA

April 20, 2008

John 14:1-12

Pope Benedict XVI has been visiting the United States this week.  But many people do not know that the Pope appreciates fine automobiles.  In Rome the roads are so narrow and twisted that a larger car is simply not practical.  And so the Pope has been known to admire some of the luxurious large cars that are provided for him when he tours throughout the world. This was the case this week when he arrived in New York City. A chauffer came to pick him up driving a custom Bentley limousine.

“Wow that’s quite a car,” said the Holy Father.

“Yes it sure is your Holiness.  In fact it was ordered specially for your arrival.”

The Pope said, “I’d love to give it a spin.  You know I really don’t get much chance to drive in Rome.”

The chauffer said.  “Your Holiness, my job is to drive you.  And we have to get to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

“Good!” said the Holy Father.  “You know the way—I’ll drive.”

It is difficult to argue with the Pope.  The chauffer climbed in the back of the limousine and the Pope got behind the wheel.  Now the chauffer said, “Take it easy.  Go up to the stop sign and take a right and pull onto the freeway.”  The Pope did so.

“Wow this car really has great pickup,” the Pope said.  “I wonder what it could do if I opened it up.”

“Be careful Holy Father,” the chauffer said.  “We have speed limits here in New York City.”  But it was too late. A police officer saw the car passing by, turned on his siren, and pulled the Bentley to the side of the freeway.  He walked up to the car and the Holy Father rolled down the window.

“Oh” the officer said.  “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” And the officer returned to his patrol car and called his supervisor.

“Sarge” he said.  “Remember how I’m supposed to call you when I get into a situation that I don’t know how to handle?  Well I just pulled over the most important person I can imagine for speeding and I don’t know how to proceed.”

The sergeant responded, “Well how important is he?”

“Very important” said the officer.

“Well,” said the sergeant, “Is he as important as Mayor Bloomberg?”

“Way more important than Mayor Bloomberg” the officer said.

“Well” the Sarge said, “Is he as important as the Governor?”

“Sarge, he’s more important than the Governor.  He’s even more important than the President of the United States!”

“Really,” said the sergeant.  “Well who exactly have you pulled over?”

The officer responded, “I don’t know who he is, but he has the Pope as a chauffer.”

It’s a clever joke.  But the image of the Pope as a chauffer is not a bad one. Despite all the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the Holy Father, his primary responsibility is to serve us.  One of his official titles is the Servant of the Servants of God.  If Jesus is the way to the Father as he clearly proclaims in today’s gospel, then it is the role of the Pope to assist us along that way, to chauffer us to Christ.

Benedict XVI has been much more successful in doing this than his critics had anticipated.  You know his job before becoming Pope was to run the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith.  He was the watchdog of orthodoxy and in many instances censured theologians who he felt were out of bounds.  When he was elected Pope, many people anticipated that his papacy would be narrow and stern and negative.  But he has proved those critics wrong.  As he demonstrated in the United States this week, his approach to being Pope is profoundly pastoral.  His first encyclical was not on some thorny moral question or international crisis, it was an encyclical on love—on God’s love for humanity.  Even more so than John Paul II, this Pope has consistently preached the Gospel as Good News.  He wants people to sense the joy and the power of being a believer.

I think that this approach by the Holy Father is quite conscious, because he knows the numbers. The numbers regarding the Catholic Church in the first world are not good.  Church participation in Europe and the United States is falling.  Only twenty percent of European Catholics attend church and US Catholics are catching up to them.  In 1987 forty-four percent of American Catholics went to church, today the number is about thirty-three percent.  There are many reasons to explain this, but the Holy Father had a particular insight to which I want to draw your attention.  He believes that many people are falling away from church because the Catholic faith no longer strikes them as “interesting.”  I think the Holy Father is correct.  Many people are ceasing to practice their faith because they see faith as an dusty set of old rules or a dead letter or a historical curiosity.  They see religion as a set of beliefs without any energy or life.  Benedict XVI is calling us to change that perception.  But how can we do that?  How do we re-instill energy into our faith?  How do we make religion interesting?  How do we put the buzz back into believing?

The only way we can do this is to find the fire in our own hearts, to locate an energy in our own believing.  If we approach our religion merely as an obligation; if we think that what we are called to do is simply to repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments; if we see passing on the faith to our children as simply telling them what we learned in grade school without any of our own experience, without any effort to rethink what we say; our faith will look to others like a dead letter.  Unless our faith in Jesus can make us better parents, more patient spouses, fairer employers, more responsible citizens; our faith will appear to others as dull and irrelevant, perhaps even superstitious.

We need to know the way that God has blessed us and be excited about the blessings we have received.  We need to draw confidence from the presence of God that we feel is with us and to proclaim that confidence and peace to others.  It’s only then that others will say, “I want that excitement.”  “I want that peace.”  “I want that confidence.”  “I want to believe as you believe.”  “I want your faith to be my own.”  If Catholicism is going to survive in the twenty-first century then we as Catholics must be people who believe with interest and enthusiasm.  That is the path down which Benedict XVI wants to chauffer us.  And we would be wise to let him take us there.

 

The Coffin

May 18, 2014

John 14: 1-12

The words of today’s gospel are a beautiful description of eternal life. Jesus promises us that we will dwell with him forever in our father’s house. So who would not want to live there? There is only one problem. We have to die to get there. And death is something that you and I wish to avoid thinking about. We live our lives from day to day, always believing that another day will follow. When someone we know dies, we shake our head acknowledging the loss, but then go on with living forgetting that death, in its own time, will come for us as well. We tend to deny our own death. But this is no benefit to us. In fact, there is an advantage to recognizing and acknowledging our own mortality.

Jeff Piehler was a retired thoracic surgeon who was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer. Death for Jeff was very much on the horizon. But instead of trying to deny his condition, Jeff looked for a way to acknowledge it. He decided that he wanted to make his own coffin. So he worked with a carpenter artist and together they formed a stunningly simple and elegant pine box. Jeff’s family was uncomfortable with his project. They saw it as a way of him giving up on life. But Jeff insisted that the exact opposite was true. Far from fixating on his death his project led him to live his life more deeply than he ever had before. For example, it was literally impossible for him to become upset and angry with the person ahead of him on the freeway who was driving too slowly after having just come from sanding the lid on his coffin. Other things changed as well. Coveting material things, bearing old grudges, worrying about what people thought about him, all revealed themselves as an ultimate waste of time.

His coffin was indeed a reminder of the fate that awaits us all. But its deepest meaning was to live every minute of life to its fullest potential. Jesus’ words in today’s gospel should be interpreted in this context. Jesus points to our own death not to depress us, but to reveal the value of every moment we live. Jesus promises us eternal joy, not as an escape from this present life, but so that we might live our life more deeply. When we live life aware of the limited time that we have, we take fewer and fewer things for granted. We take time to celebrate every life giving relationship, to savor every act of love, to rejoice in every chance meeting, to enjoy every small blessing that life bestows. That is why Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Because he understands that when we acknowledge our own mortality, we live life more deeply, and when we live life more deeply, we are no longer afraid of dying. The more we can live our lives in thankfulness and joy, the less power death has over us.

Jeff Piehler understood this truth. On the inside lid of his coffin, just above the place where his head would lie, he carved his favorite verse of poetry. It reads, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”