Sunday, May 17, 2009

6th Sunday in Easter (B)
Fill Her Up!

Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17
Picture: cc Dalboz17

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced having your car run out of gas on the road? One can imagine how distressing it must be when that happens, especially if the nearest gas station is many miles away and you don’t have an AAA membership. On such occasions, we receive a painfully effective reminder that we can’t move our vehicles by sheer force of will alone. We realize how helpless we are without gas. We are forced to acknowledge that, if we wish to enjoy the convenience of zipping around in a snazzy automobile, we also have to take care to refill the tank from time to time. In fact, I know someone who always gets a full tank of gas every time a trip to a new destination is planned. That’s because this person is prone to getting lost. And, of course, it’s especially important to fill up before going on a road trip. You never know when you might lose your way.

Isn’t this very much like life in general? Isn’t life very much like a great road trip? Isn’t it true that, amid the many twists and turns on the highways and byways of our human existence, it’s difficult to predict when one might get lost? Who knew, for example, that a big fire would destroy 80 homes in southern California in the month of May? (Isn’t fire season supposed to be in the fall?) Or that a swine flu outbreak in Mexico would threaten many lives on a global scale? (I thought all we got from pigs was ham.) Or that the stock market would plummet suddenly, bringing with it various huge corporations, including banks and auto companies, not to mention our own retirement savings and mortgages? (Wasn’t GM supposed to last forever?) Who knew that these things would happen? And when such things do happen, when we find ourselves lost in them, aren’t we made painfully aware of how vulnerable we are?

Whatever others may say, at such times, we are made to realize that, just as an automobile needs gas to keep running, we Christians are dependent upon a power beyond ourselves for the strength to soldier on. And by soldier on, I don’t just mean physical or financial survival – although that’s often difficult enough. I also mean continuing to think and act in ways that befit a human being. For especially in times of crisis, it’s truly tempting to start looking out only for our own interests, or to vent our frustrations by engaging in destructive criticism, or to give in to depression and despair. From where might we gain the energy – the gas – to continue to act in Christ-like ways, to do as Jesus would?

This is where our readings prove enlightening. Not only do they help us to understand the nature of this gas that powers the vehicle of our Christian life, but they also indicate to us how we might go about filling ourselves up with it. The nature of this spiritual fuel is spelled out for us in the second reading, where John tells us that everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… for God is love. Indeed, as cheesy as it may sound to some, from a Christian perspective, the world runs on love. Love is what keeps us connected to God even, or especially, at times when we are most likely to feel lost. Isn’t this why, in the gospel, in his farewell speech to his disciples before going forth to face the great crisis of his Passion, Jesus sees fit to offer them, and us, this crucially important reminder: As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love?

Yes, it’s quite clear from the readings that love is what fuels our meandering road trip through life. But, at least in my own experience, it’s often all too easy to misunderstand what this means. When we hear Jesus give us his great commandment to love one another as I have loved you, it is tempting to quickly focus first on what we have to do. We have to love others, no matter what. But isn’t it true that as soon as we try, with any degree of seriousness, to do this, we come face to face with our own weakness and powerlessness? Can we truly be expected to love everyone – even to the extent of laying down our lives for them? Everyone? All the time? Difficult enough to speak civilly to the neighbor whose political views are diametrically opposed to mine, or to tolerate the hard-of-hearing housemate who watches TV at a thousand decibels, let alone give my life for the terrorist who’s trying his darnedest to it take away!

The one who tries to love others on his/her own strength is not unlike the motorist who expects to operate a vehicle on an empty gas tank, by sheer force of will alone. For the love we are commanded to have for one another is not something that comes ultimately from us. As the second reading reminds us: In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

In order to keep chugging along in the Christian life, it’s important that we take care to fill our gas tanks from time to time. And we do this by visiting three privileged locations where a refill might be obtained. The first location is found by looking back. It is found in the Mystery that we have been celebrating in a special way in this Easter season, and at every Mass. In the words of the responsorial psalm, the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power through the Dying and Rising of Christ the Son. And we draw from this power every time we remember, as we are doing now, what God has done for us in Christ.

If the first location involves looking back, the second requires that we look ahead. Consider Peter’s experience in the first reading. Till now, Peter has witnessed the Spirit working powerfully among circumcised Jewish believers after they had been baptized. But in Cornelius and his household, Peter witnesses a new thing. He is led to see that the Spirit is also at work in uncircumcised Gentiles, even before they are baptized. And, to his credit, Peter willingly forsakes his prejudice in order to follow the Spirit’s lead. He orders that the Gentile believers receive baptism. And by doing so, Peter allows himself to tap into the power of God that has been moving ahead of him. Could it be that, even today, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Spirit might be moving powerfully ahead of us in unexpected ways?

When we engage in the practice of looking back and looking forward on a regular basis, we also come to find a third location from which to tap into the power of God’s love. Gradually, we come to experience the truth in Jesus' words in the gospel, where he calls us not servants, but friends. It is in the nature of a friend to remain not only behind or in front of you, but also to walk by your side. In recalling the Father’s love behind us, and in yielding to the surprising action of the Spirit moving ahead of us, we learn also to recognize the friendship of Christ beside us. Which brings to mind those moving words from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Sisters and brothers, on the road trip of the Christian life, we are truly surrounded by gas stations.

How full is our tank today?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

4th Sunday of Easter (B)
Baby Talk

Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18
Picture: cc landeth

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever witnessed parents speaking to their little ones in baby talk? Or maybe you’ve even done it yourself. What does it feel like? I’ve sometimes witnessed people do it in public and marveled at the fact that adults don’t seem to feel the least bit embarrassed speaking like that. Which brings to mind Friday’s edition of the comic strip For Better or For Worse, in which a young mother is coaxing her toddler to sit on a potty. Nizzie sit on poe? She asks politely. Nice poe-poe! Sit on pottie? She asks again. Pottie good, she says. Nizzie big girl. Big girls sittum on poe! Baby talk. But after the mission has finally been accomplished, the mother laments to herself: And for this I majored in English.

I’m not sure what the child-rearing experts have to say about baby talk specifically, but isn’t it amazing, the lengths people go to for their children? Good parents think nothing of lowering themselves in order to communicate with and care for their little ones, even to the extent of speaking gibberish in public. Isn’t that part of the power of love? It leads us to lower ourselves in some way.

But that’s just one direction in which love tends to move us. Can you think of another? Consider this phone conversation someone had with a stranger who was complaining about her parents, telling of how they were so controlling. How they never allowed her to do anything on her own. How she had no freedom. Then, when asked if she would mind revealing her age, she says, Oh, I’m 40. Our reaction to this story, I think, indicates another direction in which love tends to move people. Not only does it move parents to lower themselves for their children, at the appropriate time, it should also lead children to rise to the challenge of taking responsibility for their own lives, and to assume their proper role in their family and in society. We shouldn’t expect to continue acting like children throughout our lives, just as we don’t usually continue speaking baby talk all the time. Lowering and rising, these seem to be two important directions in which love moves us.

And these are also the two directions of movement that we find in our readings today. The second reading exhorts us, for example, to see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And how has the Father done this except in and through the death and resurrection of Christ the Son. As Peter tells his listeners in the first reading, there is no salvation through anyone else… In Christ, the presence of God has been lowered into our midst. In Christ, the Father has spoken to us, in our own language, a Word that we can all understand.

In the gospel, Jesus helps us to appreciate even more deeply this movement of divine descent by painting for us the tender image of the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep. Not only does the shepherd have an intimate knowledge of each of his sheep – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – but his love is such that he is willing even to lay down his life for them. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. Indeed, out of love, the Good Shepherd lowers himself even to the extent of becoming a baby sheep. For as we remind ourselves at every Mass, before receiving communion: for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For our sakes, the Shepherd assumes the condition of a lamb, slain in sacrifice to save his scattered sheep.

This is the mystery that we remember and in which we rejoice, especially in this great season of Easter, and at every celebration of the Eucharist. We celebrate the love that moved the Good Shepherd to lower himself, becoming for us a Lamb of Sacrifice. And our regular celebrations of this mystery should also help us to recognize how God continues to shepherd us in and through the various experiences, the different persons and situations, that we may encounter on a daily basis – in parents and children, friends and relatives, colleagues and classmates… Not just at Mass, but also in all of the mundane experiences of our lives, however challenging or consoling, the presence of God remains among us.

But this lowering of God into our midst is only the first direction of love’s movement. Can you recognize the other? Especially in the readings of these past weeks of the Easter season, haven’t we witnessed how those who meet the risen Christ always end up running off to tell other people about it? Haven’t we noticed how, filled with the Holy Spirit, the early Christians – and especially Peter in today’s first reading – continue to rise courageously to the challenge of preaching the good news to others both in word and in deed? Isn’t it striking how, moved and inspired by the Good Shepherd’s self-sacrifice, his sheep are emboldened to continue his work? Not only does love move the Shepherd to become a lamb, it also strengthens his sheep to become shepherds for others. In love, not only is there a lowering, there needs also to be a rising.

And this upward movement is also implied in another image of Christ that our readings present to us today: the image of the stone rejected by the builders (that) has become the corner stone. If Christ lowers himself to the extent of becoming a corner stone firmly embedded in the chaotic soil of our human situation, it is only so that we who claim to be his disciples can build upon the solid foundation that he provides. And isn’t this the grace for which we asked the Father in the opening prayer just now: to attune our minds to the sound of his voice, to lead our steps in the path that he has shown, that we may know the strength of his outstretched arm?

In this connection, we may recall that the students of this parish are in the midst of organizing a retreat – a wonderful opportunity both to be shepherded and to shepherd others.

Sisters and brothers, today our readings remind us that to celebrate Easter – indeed, to celebrate the Eucharist – is to immerse ourselves in this twofold movement of love. It is to remain in the presence of the Shepherd who has lowered himself among us, so that we, in turn, can rise to the challenge of shepherding others. For as tempting as it may be to hang back and to be satisfied simply with being so-called Sunday Catholics, we know that to choose to do so is not much different from choosing to speak baby talk for the rest of our Christian lives. In the words of that popular Josh Groban song that could so easily describe what the Good Shepherd has done and continues to do for us:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

Sisters and brothers, how is the Good Shepherd inviting us to rise to the challenge of love today?