A Serious Proposition
May 2, 2004
A young man was out with his date and snuggled up close to her. “I love you,” he said. “I need you. I cannot live without you.” The girl gently pushed him away and said, “Joe, let’s not go there. I’m not ready to get serious.” Joe responded, “Who’s serious?” We live in a world where games are always being played with words, where people frequently say one thing and mean another. Whether we consider Washington or Madison Avenue, whether we examine our jobs or even our families, we do not take words at their face value. Therefore, it is inevitable that this doubt about sincerity would influence us when we hear the Word of God.
Each week we gather here and hear the Word of God, which tells us God loves us, God cares for us, God will never let us perish. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. Jesus uses the image of the shepherd and the sheep to emphasize the close, personal relationship that binds us to him. Just as the sheep can recognize the voice of the shepherd and follow him and trust themselves to his care, Jesus says that we stand in a close, personal relationship with him. He will give us life and protect us. Jesus’ words are clear. The question is, do we think that he is serious? Or do we hear them as a kind of religious jargon or a modified sales pitch that only partially applies to us? To hear them in that way would be a fatal mistake because the basis of all that we believe depends upon our acceptance of that personal relationship with Christ.
What it means to be a Christian or a Catholic is not simply that we show up for church on the week-end or engage in a number of pious devotions. It is not simply giving mental ascent to a series of theological truths. It is not that we accept John Paul II as our Pope or you accept me as your pastor. It is not even primarily about living a good moral life, because millions of people do exactly that without any religious conviction whatever. What it comes down to, what is at the heart of our religion is that we know that we are daughters and sons of God. We believe that we have a personal relationship with Christ. We trust that regardless of who we are or the mistakes we have made, God will remain faithful to us and protect us. We believe that Jesus knows the pitch of our voice and knowing everything about us, still freely chooses to love us and protect us. Outside of that relationship, faith is simply a matter of words and religion a system of ideas. Words and ideas are not going to save us. Only love can save us. This is why we must be grounded in a relationship of love with Christ. We need the strength that flows from that love because we live in world where there are all kinds of threats. We face the threat of terrorism, the threat of illness, the threat of rejection or prejudice from others, the threat of addiction, of violence, of injustice. How do we expect to cope with the fears that these threats can destroy us? How do we expect to gain the strength by which we can oppose the evil in our world and work towards God’s Kingdom? How do we expect to remain optimistic and positive, believing that life is worth living?
Words and ideas can only bring us so far. It is only when we ground ourselves in God’s personal love for us, that we can find peace. It is only when we believe God has chosen us and can recognize the very sound of our voice that we can live in freedom. Jesus’ words are clear. We belong to him. He knows our voice. He will always care and protect us. We need then, to stand in that personal relationship. We need to draw the strength that comes from Christ’s commitment to us. Jesus says, “I love you.” We need to believe that He is serious!
Hearing the Voice of Our Shepherd
April 25, 2010
An American was traveling in the Middle East. As he was driving through the countryside, he ran across two shepherds whose sheep had become intermingled as they drank from a brook. He watched as the two shepherds talked with one another, concluded their conversation then bid one another farewell and began to walk off in two different directions. As they did so, the one shepherd called out, “Mannah, mannah,” which in Arabic means, “follow me.” At the same time, the other shepherd called out the same words. The sheep lifted their heads and then divided precisely into two groups, each recognizing the voice of their shepherd.
Jesus uses this shepherding image in today’s gospel to describe his relationship with us. If he is the shepherd, then we must be the ones who recognize his voice and follow him. But what does it mean to recognize the voice of Jesus? There is more than poetry here. Christians believe that at times in our life Christ speaks to us, calls to us, asks us to do something quite specific. What Christ asks us to do can be both dramatic and life changing.
Here is an example: It is the example of the Salwen family, a suburban family from Atlanta. A number of years ago Kevin, the father, was driving with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, through the downtown section of the city. They stopped at a traffic light. Hannah, looking out of the window, saw a man on the sidewalk holding a sign: “Homeless, please help!” At the same time she saw a man in a luxurious Mercedes waiting with them at the traffic light. She said to her father, “You know dad, if that man in the Mercedes had a little less nice a car, the man on the sidewalk could have a meal.” Kevin thought for a moment about his daughter’s comment and then said, “You know Hannah, if we had a little less nice a car, that man could have a meal.”
That interchange between father and daughter set the Salwen family on a spiritual journey, a journey that they have recounted in their book, The Power of Half. It is called The Power of Half because after a considerable number of months of family discussion, the Salwens decided that they did not need as big a house. They agreed to sell their house and give half of the proceeds away. Now they had a big house, six thousand square feet, and the market was better for housing in those days. They down sized and were able to give $800,000 to a hunger effort in the African country of Ghana.
Why half? Kevin Salwen would say that half is measurable. So many times we run into a situation of real need and we say to ourselves, “I should do something.” But “something” is vague, and vagueness means that often we often end up doing nothing at all. But half is a precise metric. It is a standard that can push us into action. The other advantage of half is that it is not connected to size. It does not have to be half of your house like it was for the Salwens. It could be half of a pay check or half of an evening out or half of an unexpected gift. What was important for the Salwens was their conclusion that Christ was asking them to do something. By doing it, they were indicating that they belonged to the good shepherd.
Now, I share this example with you, not because I am recommending that you give half of something away—although if you decide to do that it could be wonderful. I only want to offer a concrete example of someone who heard the voice of Christ speaking in the circumstances of their own life and chose to follow it. If you and I have a real relationship with Jesus, we should not be surprised if occasionally Christ asks us to do something. It could be giving money to the poor. It might be reconciling with an enemy. It might be spending more time with the family, seeking out counseling, or entering a specific career.
Christ can speak to us in many ways. But if we come to church every Sunday, if we pray, if we call ourselves Christians and we never hear Christ asking us to do anything, something is wrong. And it is unlikely that we hear nothing because Christ is not speaking. It is much more likely that we are not listening. Not listening is a serious flaw, because if Christ is truly our shepherd, he is calling. So the important question for each of us here today is what is Christ calling me to do? What is Christ asking me to do? It is a question that is essential to our relationship, because we cannot follow him if we do not recognize his voice.
Boston Bombings and God
April 21, 2013
John 10: 27-30
It has been a bad week: bombings at the Boston Marathon with three dead and 170 injured; the people of Boston locked in their homes, watching gun fights on their streets and SWAT teams crawling through their backyards; an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas killing 14 and injuring 200. You can’t go through a week like this without feeling a little less secure and a little more afraid. We wake up every morning imagining that things will go as usual. We move about with an air of invulnerability. But a week like this reminds us that anything can happen, and sometimes it does.
Of course, there will be a national debate over security at public events and oversight at chemical plants. If that debate is productive, it could result in better policies and greater security. Despite the importance of that discussion, it is not what we must discuss here this morning. Today we need to reflect on the spiritual aspect of what happened this week. We need to ask what these events mean in terms of our belief in God. This is not an idle question. Because in light of what has happened to us this week, it can seem that the words of Jesus are naive and perhaps misleading.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents himself to us as our shepherd. He tells us that we will never perish, that no one—no evil—will ever take us from his hand. How can we understand Jesus’ words in light of the events of this week? It may seem that Jesus is promising us more than he can deliver. How hollow is his promise that we shall never perish to those whose family members did perish. How empty is his promise that we will never be snatched out of his hand to those who are facing months and years of reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. It seems that Jesus’ promise to us cannot be trusted.
That is why our aim this morning is to understand what Jesus’ words really mean, to ask ourselves what sense do they carry in the dangerous world in which we live. This question challenges us to examine our own faith and to consider what we think believing is about. All too often we do not reflect on our faith. We just carry it from day to day. We can carry notions with it that are elementary and perhaps even childish. We can say, “If I am a good person and do what is right, if I say my prayers, no bad thing is going to happen to me.” I wish that were true. But such a belief is too simplistic.
Being a good person does not mean that we will never have to face evil. Being a person of faith does not exempt us from suffering. Coming to church and saying our prayers does not make us more secure at public events or next to fertilizer plants. Faith does not assure us that we are exempt from cancer, or earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.
To put this most bluntly, faith is not primarily about security. It is about a relationship. People who believe are not safer than those who do not believe. But they can be stronger, stronger as they face the evils that come into their lives. They can be stronger because they believe in a God who is with them, a God who has promised them eternal life and a courage to deal with the difficulties of life.
This is why the image that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel is so important. Jesus said that he holds us in his hand and that no one—no evil—will take us from him. That promise is a promise of his presence, a promise that we will be with him. From his presence we will draw guidance, strength, and hope.
This is what faith is: not a guarantee of protection, but a guarantee of relationship. Such a faith promises that we can live our lives in relationship to the Creator of the universe, to the Savior of the world, and that we can draw strength from God’s love.
Jesus holds us in the palm of his hand. He does not promise that we will avoid suffering and evil. But he does promise that he will never let us go.
Anointing of the Sick
17 April 2016
All of us have had this experience: someone we know, someone we love, or even we ourselves are diagnosed with a serious disease, cancer or heart problems. We seek medical treatment. We try to keep our spirits up. But we feel vulnerable and helpless. What can we do?
Others of us are advancing in age. We are not as mobile as we used to be. There are more aches and pains. We try to stay healthy, to eat right and exercise. But we know the direction of life, and it is moving toward less mobility and more pain. What can we do?
What we can do in the presence of sickness or advancing age is to surround ourselves with love. In those difficult circumstances there is nothing more important than to stay in touch with the people who love us, our family and friends. Nothing is more important than to remember to whom we belong.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells us that we belong to him. He is always with us and no one can take us out of his hand. This is what we celebrate today in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. As those here who are sick or aging come forward to be anointed, they show thankfulness for the people in their lives who surround them with love, and we support them in our faith that they are surrounded by Jesus’ love. That love gives strength and hope. Sickness and growing old can challenge and frighten us. But we believe that Jesus our shepherd is with us. And no one can take us out of his hand.
A Love to Be Trusted
May 12, 2019
On this Mother’s Day weekend, we should begin with a story about mothers. About four years ago, the Des Moines Register asked its readers to send in memories of mothers’ love. One woman wrote: “When I was 6 years old I was petrified of spending the first day at school in kindergarten. In the illogical way that children sometimes think, I had convinced myself that if my mother left me at school, she would forget to come back for me. My mother protested. ‘Honey,’ she said, ‘You are the most important thing in my life. I would never forget to come back for you.’ But her words gave me no comfort. Finally, in desperation, my mother took off her wedding ring. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘This is the most valuable thing I own. It has a diamond on it, and it is a sign of your father’s love for me. Take it and put it in your sock. If you doubt whether or not I am going to come back for you, know that I will come back for that ring.’ I took it and it worked. All during that first day of school as I began to panic I felt the ring in my sock, and I knew she would come back.”
At times, a mother’s love does crazy things—like entrusting a six-year-old with a diamond ring to assure her that she was secure in her mother’s love. Jesus wants to assure us that we are secure in his love in today’s gospel. Using the image of the good shepherd he tells us that he holds us in his hand, and no one and no thing will ever be able to snatch us away from him. This is his promise to us, and we are to be attentive, to hear his voice.
But that’s not always easy. When someone we care about ends a relationship, when a person we love is lost through death, we feel empty and alone. We wonder will life ever begin again. Jesus tells us that he is with us, that he is our shepherd, and he will lead us to happiness and joy.
When things change in our family, in our world, or in our church, we can become frightened. We can loose hope, believing whatever new thing comes will never be as good as what once was. But Jesus tells us that he holds us close and that we will face the future together.
When we receive a diagnosis of a serious illness and must look forward to months of operations and treatments, when we notice how with advancing years our energy and our abilities are becoming less and less, we can become discouraged. We ask ourselves what kind of life will I have to lead. Jesus tells us: I am with you. I will give you eternal life. You will never perish.
Today’s gospel tells us that the very life of God flows within us and that Jesus will never abandon us. He tells this to us in clear words. But sometimes words are not enough. And since Jesus has no wedding ring or other precious item to give to us, he gives us something more. He gives us himself.