Being God’s Children
May 11, 2003
There is an ancient legend told in the mountains of the Andes, about two mountain tribes. One lived at the foot of the mountains in the lowlands and the other lived at the mountain’s top. These two tribes were enemies and constantly at war with one another. One day the tribe from the top of the mountain came down to attack the lowlander’s village. In the course of their plunder they kidnapped a young boy and took him with them back up the mountain. The lowlanders immediately responded by selecting fifty of their strongest and most capable warriors and sending them on a mission to rescue the boy. The problem was that the lowlanders did not know how to climb mountains. They did not know the paths that should be used. So these fifty soldiers tried path after path and climbing method after climbing method. All to no avail. After three or four days of futile efforts, hopeless and helpless, they decided to give up and return to their village. But as they were packing their gear, they looked up and they saw the mother of the child who had been kidnapped coming down from the mountain that they were unable to climb. She had her son strapped to her back. One of the soldiers went up to greet her and said, “You succeeded where fifty of the most capable people of our village, failed. How is this possible?” The woman shrugged and said, “He was not your child.”
Whenever we give life to anyone, we can do things that others cannot do and that others cannot understand. Whenever we give life to another person, we are connected to that person forever. For the giving of life forms a bond that time does not break. Mothers know this because, in the most fundamental sense, they give life to another. But every one of us here who is connected to anyone knows this as well, because if we are connected deeply to anyone, that connection came about because life was given. Life can be given in an unequal way, like the life that parents give to children or the life teachers give to students or the life that the wise give to the young. Or life can be given in a mutual manner like the way that spouses give life to one another or the way that close friends share life together and deepen their experience of living. But however it is done, whenever life is given, connections are formed and those connections are essential for us. Because when life is given and connections are formed, two things invariably emerge: worth and sacrifice.
It is only when we give life to one another that we really understand our own worth. It is in the process of being connected to others that we see who we are and what our true value is. The person who lives in isolation does not even know who she or he is. But when we are connected, our life has meaning. A life without connections is empty and purposeless. So the connections we have to others allow us to claim our own worth. They also lead us to sacrifice. If we are connected to others, we feel their pain. When others to whom we are connected make bad decisions or are in danger, we suffer with them. This is why mothers worry and why friends mourn. Because once we begin to love someone, it is only a matter of time before we suffer with them. Once we are connected to someone, we will, in time, also be hurt. Whenever we give life to someone, we must be willing to lay down our life time and again. Both worth and sacrifice flow from the connections that support us, the connections that come from life that is shared. This is nothing new. It is our experience. It is simply the way things are.
But the good news found in the gospel we have just heard is this: this giving of life that leads to a connection out of which worth and sacrifice flow, is not limited simply to us. It also applies to God. God is the one who gave us life and so God is bound to us by bonds that cannot be broken. Just as the Good Shepherd cares for the sheep and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep; God cares for us and is willing to do all that is necessary to help us. Because of this, we should never doubt our value in God’s eyes. Because of this we should never think that God has forgotten us, no matter how difficult our life becomes. God has given life to us and like a mother, can never stop caring for us, can never fail to save us.
We can doubt our own value but we should never doubt that God cares for us. . Others can look at us and see us as expendable or worthless. They can point to us and ask God, “How could you love these people? They are so selfish, so judgmental, so wounded. How could you care for them? How could you be willing to lay down your life for them? We could never do it.” But to that question, God would simply shrug and say, “They are not your children.”
A Glimpse of God’s Love
May 7, 2006
“God loves you.” How often have you heard that phrase in a homily or read it in the bible or on a bumper sticker? God loves you. It is so commonplace that it often does not sink in. We hear it so often that it makes little impact. But it must make an impact, because knowing that God loves you is the center of the gospel, and little of what Jesus teaches will make any sense unless we believe that God loves us.
But how can we take in a love that is so much larger than anything we have imagined? How can we absorb the profound truth that God loves us? The Jewish rabbis had a technique to provide an appreciation for something much larger than we could ever experience. It was called “from the lesser to the greater.” It worked like this. If we can appreciate a lesser example of what love and care is, we can then imagine that God’s love was so much greater. If we could appreciate the lesser, it could give us a glimpse of the greater.
There was an effective example of the lesser to the greater published in the New York Times this March. A reporter from the Times lost his wallet on the subway. When he arrived at the office and discovered it was gone, he was frustrated. He knew that his life would be in upheaval for the next couple of weeks, trying to identify and replace the contents. But about an hour later, a young man by the name of Paul showed up at the office and returned the reporter’s wallet. He did not want any reward for doing so. The reporter and Paul talked a few minutes about Paul’s family, in particular about his pride in his nine-month-old son, Malachi. After Paul left, the reporter decided to write a letter to Malachi. This is what he wrote:
You don’t know me, but your father Paul and I were fellow travelers on the subway at 34th Street. As I sped along, I dropped my wallet. Your father was walking a few moments behind me and found it. It had little monetary value, but to me it was priceless. Your father could have set it on a railing as so many other people would have done, but he took the time to find its owner. Searching through its contents, he supposed that the transit tickets and business cards would reveal my place of work. He was correct. He brought the wallet to me, and he would not take a reward.
In a city of millions, your father became a singularly important person. He was willing to set aside his time and schedule to perform an act of kindness for a person he didn’t even know. I wanted to tell you this because your father would probably not think his act of kindness was worthy of a boast. But I think that you should know something of the love which surrounds you. Your father was willing to make sure that a simple wallet made its way home. Just think what he would do to make sure that you—someone he loves immeasurably—will always find your way home as well. I write to you in the hope that my story can give you even a small glimpse of how much your father must love you.
From the lesser to the greater. From the care that could be appreciated in making sure that a wallet finds its owner, we can catch a glimpse of the care and love that most certainly pertains to a son. If we can appreciate the way that fathers and mothers love their sons and daughters here on earth, that can give us a small insight to how much greater is God’s care and love for us. Today’s second reading tells us that God loves us as daughters and sons. In the gospel Jesus the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for us.
We must believe in that love. We must believe it when we are discouraged and frightened, when we’ve failed or lost our way, when we’re struggling with loss or sickness or bitterness. God will not forget us. God will not abandon us. God loves us. That is not a cliché. That is our hope and our salvation.
One Flock, One Shepherd
May 3, 2009
A Jewish couple living in Texas decided to participate in a cultural exchange program in which Jews from throughout the world came to visit the United States. So around Christmas time a rabbi from the back woods of Russia showed up to live with them for awhile. They wanted to provide the rabbi experiences that he could not have in his native Russia, so they called together some family and friends and took him out to their favorite Chinese restaurant. All during the meal the rabbi was speaking in glowing terms of the beauties of North America. At the end of the meal the owner of the restaurant came forward and presented to each diner a small metal Christmas tree ornament as a token of the season. After the owner left, someone pointed out that on the back of the ornament it was written “Made in India.” Everyone had a good laugh. Then they noticed that the rabbi was crying. His hosts became concerned and questioned him whether he was offended because he was given a gift that was connected to a Christian holiday. But he shook his head, “No, no,” he said, “I’m crying tears of joy, joy to be in a country where a Buddhist can give a Jew a Christmas gift made by a Hindu.”
The tears of the rabbi were holy tears, and in our hearts we know it. Because regardless of background or religion all people recognize that when those who are different cooperate, when men and women reach across borders that separate them, when divisions are healed, God is at work. The Jewish tradition knew this profoundly. The Jewish Bible begins with God creating all things and making all people in God’s likeness. The Jewish Torah instructs Jews to love and care for the resident aliens, people of other countries who lived in their midst. They were directed to welcome the stranger. Jesus being a good Jew placed this truth at the heart of his message saying that we who welcome the stranger welcome Him. In today’s gospel he uses the image of the shepherd and the sheep, first of all to emphasize his closeness to us and then to make it clear that he has other sheep that do not belong to our fold. In this way he reveals that God’s ultimate intention is to have one fold and one shepherd.
This vision of a humanity united across its divisions is God’s vision. All too often we see our faith as a way of connecting God to us, and those that we know and love. But God has a broader vision. God’s intention is to extend respect and unity across the entire earth. And this vision is not marginal to the Good News but at its center. Because every vision we have of God’s Kingdom includes all people united in respect and peace.
Now we do not often reflect upon this central part of our faith, because is so much easier, so much more comfortable, just to stick around with the people who are like us—the people who think the way we do, the people who come from the same background and have the same perspectives. It takes an effort to reach out to someone who is different, to accept someone who seems strange to us. Yet our faith calls us to do just that. If the Kingdom is to come, then we must be willing to recognize and to welcome those who are strangers to us.
People who are different surround us regularly. We run into them at work or at school, or when we shop or when we go to the movies. We are constantly rubbing elbows with people who are different: different because of their race, because of their religion, because of their sexual orientation, because of their nationality. We must not forget that God sees us in terms of the way that we see them. Therefore it is part of our calling to take the decision to reach across the boundary and accept someone who is different, who is stranger to us.
This can be done in simple ways. We do not have to welcome a Russian rabbi into our home. It can be as simple as smiling to someone who is different from us or offering them a confident “Good Morning.” If the situation allows, we might ask someone, “How was your weekend?” or share with them how our weekend was. These small actions reflect an attitude of openness and welcome. Each time we offer them it is so much more than being an open-minded and nice person. It is taking a step closer to God’s intention for the world, a step closer to building the Kingdom of God.
It is always more comfortable to remain in our own flock, to mill around with sheep that are just like us. But the shepherd whom we love has other sheep. If we intend to serve him, we must be willing to accept those sheep as well. Every time we do so we contribute to God’s intention for the world. Every time we welcome someone who is stranger to us, we move closer to the day when there will be one flock and one shepherd.
The Difference Between Cows and Sheep
April 29, 2012
John 10: 11-18
Today’s Gospel is one of several places in the New Testament where Jesus is associated with a shepherd. If Jesus is the shepherd, then we are the sheep. Now I must admit that it is not uncommon for people to approached me and complain about this image. They point out that sheep are dirty and dull animals—animals with which they are not flattered to be compared. As one man told me, “I am a beloved child of God, not some clueless farm animal!”
The point is well taken. Yet the Scriptures do not present sheep to us in order to imply that we are sheep. We are not sheep. For that matter, neither is Jesus a shepherd. But the image of shepherd and sheep is used to say something about our relationship to God. Therefore, today, rather than being distracted by the animal imagery, I would like to ask what is useful about it. How does the image of sheep help us understand our relationship to God.
I think the place to begin is by noting that sheep are different from cows. Cows are rather confident animals. They are not easily panicked. So if you own a number of cows, you are able to herd them. You can stand behind them and shake a stick or make a loud noise and the cows will look back and say, “I don’t know what that person is doing, but I want to get away from him.”—and together they will move ahead as a group. You can herd cows by getting behind them and pushing them forward.
Sheep are different. They are not as confident as cows and are easily shaken. If you stand behind a group of sheep and shake a stick or make a loud noise, they will panic and disperse in every direction. The only way you can move a group of sheep forward is by having them trust you. Then when they hear your voice, they will follow it. In other words, sheep cannot be herded. They must be led.
The image of sheep, then, says something important about our relationship with Christ. Jesus wants to move us. But he does not want to move us by disturbing us, but by attracting us. Jesus does not want us to be with him because he can force us to be with him, but because he is worthy of our trust. In other words, Jesus desires a relationship that is built not on fear but on love. This is an important insight for us because we may at one time or another see our own faith more in terms of obligation than grace. This is inappropriate, because the gospel is much more positive than it is negative. The Gospel is much more about embracing God’s love than following God’s commands.
Now don’t get me wrong. We should follow God’s commands. We do have obligations to meet, and there are consequences for not meeting them. But Jesus is always calling us to relate to him on a higher level. Does he want us to come to church? Yes. But he wants us to come to church, not out of obligation, but because we know that we can experience God’s presence and joy when we come together. Does he want us to treat all people with respect? Yes, he does. But he wants us to do this not because we would be embarrassed if people saw how narrowly we think and judge one another, but because we perceive in each person the image of God. Does he want us to forgive our enemies? Yes, he does. But he wants us to forgive our enemies, not because he has commanded it, but because we realize that there is no greater satisfaction than to experience the healing which comes from reconciliation.
Jesus does not want to push us. He wants to lead us. If his purpose was to force us to the place we needed to go, we would be cows and he would be the herdsman. But he says that he is the shepherd and we are the sheep. He calls us sheep because he wants to attract us by the sound of his voice, so that trusting him we might follow him into the Kingdom of God.
A Call to Serve
April 26, 2015
Some of you may remember that this last February a young 26-year-old American woman was killed while being held captive by the Islamic State. Her name was Kayla Mueller, and she was in Syria providing humanitarian aid to the refuges of the Syrian crisis. What you might not know about Kayla is that the work she did was motivated by a deep religious conviction. She worked among the refuges because that is where she saw God. She wrote in a letter to her parents, “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. And so, dear Lord, if this is where you are revealed to me, this is where I will forever seek you.”
Working among the suffering people around her was what God was calling Kayla to do. It was her vocation. Christians have always believed that God calls each of us to a particular vocation, to a particular path in life. And here is the truth about vocations. When you find what God is calling you to do, when you find where, in Kayla’s words, “You can find God,” you will be happy. Kayla’s parents report that her letters from prison were remarkably positive and joyful. They were this way because her imprisonment flowed from her vocation, from who she was, and who she was called to be. Jesus reflects this kind of freedom in today’s Gospel. He says the he willingly, freely, lays down his life for his sheep. He can do this because he understands that his vocation is to be the shepherd, that God is calling him to care for the people that have been entrusted to him.
When we find our vocation, we will have freedom and joy. This is why it is so important for us to discern what God is calling us to do. If we base our life on how much money we can make, how much influence we can have, how much popularity we can accrue, we might in time be wealthy, powerful, and popular. But we might not be happy. This is why we should ask over and again, “What is God calling me to?” That answer can be different in our 20’s, in our 40’s, or in our 60’s.
God calls no one to everything. We cannot walk multiple paths at the same time. That is why it is important for each of us to find our own path and follow it. For some it will be a dedicated life of service as a single person. For many it will be the partnership of marriage, loving our spouse, our children, and our grandchildren. But we also believe that God is calling people to the priesthood and religious life as brothers and sisters. It is a priestly vocation that I discern as mine. I have no regrets in choosing it. Over the last forty years I have been blessed time and again by the people with whom I have worked and the people I have had the privileged to serve. The religious vocation is not as popular as it was fifty years ago. But the church still needs healthy and generous men and women to serve as priests, deacons, sisters, and brothers to bring about God’s Kingdom in our world.
So do not be influenced by people who say, “I could never be a priest or a brother or a sister.” They say this because it is not their vocation. The question is: “Is it yours?” If it is, follow it. It will provide you with the opportunity to lay down your life for something that is good. It will allow you to serve others. And, because it will be the place where you find God, it will make you happy.
April 22, 2018
There was a man who wanted to be happy. He thought to himself, “If I were rich, I would be happy.” One day he heard of a distant country in which onions were unknown. “Aha,” he said to himself, “If I could be the one to introduce onions into this country, I would make a fortune.” So he bought a large wagon and filled it full of onions. After a long and difficult journey he arrived at the distant land. He went at once to the king and said, “Your Majesty I would like to introduce to you a new vegetable, a vegetable that will change your kingdom. Everything you cook with it will taste better.” The king was intrigued and ordered that a dinner be prepared. When the king tasted the onions, their flavor exceeded his wildest imagination. He said to the man, “I will buy all of these onions from you, and I will pay you with their weight in gold.” So that day the man went home with his wagon filled with gold.
But then he thought to himself, “If I made this much money with onions, garlic is even more flavorful and more expensive. If I could introduce garlic to this distant country, I would come home with my wagon filled with diamonds!” So he went to the king a second time. When the king tasted the garlic, he agreed that its flavor was even more wonderful than the onions. He told the man,“ I will buy all the garlic that you have.” Then he met with his councilors to set the price. They all agreed that the flavor of the garlic made it more valuable than gold. So they decided to pay in the most precious commodity of their kingdom. And that day the man went home with his wagon filled with onions.
If we try to find happiness by becoming rich, our plans will betray us. This is why Jesus shows us another way in today’s gospel. In the gospel Jesus says that he is the shepherd and we are the sheep. Now what kind of a shepherd is Jesus? Five times in this gospel he tells us that he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Jesus is not focused on himself. He is focused on us. By his willingness to lay down his life he tells us that we will not find happiness by acquiring power, fame, or gold. We will find happiness when we give of ourselves to others. Now at first this sounds contradictory, that we would find happiness not by focusing on ourselves but by serving others. But Jesus assures us it is true. It can be difficult to be patient with your brothers and sisters who tease you or your children who do not listen to you. But when we find that patience, we will be happy. It can be a challenge to treat someone at school or at work who annoys us with respect. But when we give that respect we know we are doing what is right. It might require a great deal of strength to forgive someone who has hurt us or the people we love. But when we find that forgiveness we will also find Jesus’ joy.
Every day we make decisions that either focus on ourselves or focus on others. Today’s gospel asks us to make those decisions carefully, because they will determine our happiness and what belongs to us. The alternatives are dramatic. Because at the end, we will either have a group of people who we love and love us in return or we will have a wagon full of onions