Sunday, April 25, 2010

4th Sunday in Easter (C)  
Good Shepherd Sunday
Choosing A Life-Stylist

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalms 100:1-2, 3, 5; Revelations 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a tourist passing through a small town, who decided that he needed a haircut. After walking around a bit, he discovered that the town had only two barbers, each of whom operated his own shop. The two barbershops were located directly across the street from each other. As he walked by them, the tourist saw that the shop on the left was very messy – there was hair all over the floor. And not only did the barber who worked there look harassed, he also had a very bad haircut. The shop on the right, however, was just the opposite. Not only was the place tidy and the floor spotless, the barber inside the shop looked cheerful and relaxed. He also sported a very stylish looking hairdo. After making these observations, the tourist quickly made up his mind. He entered the shop on the left – the messy one – and asked for a haircut. Sisters and brothers, do you know why he did that? Would you have done the same?

To be honest, I probably would have gone into the other shop instead. And the reason is that, in making my decision, I would have been listening to a voice in my head telling me that a good barber should have a good haircut and a clean shop. But our tourist was listening to another voice, one that was telling him something different. First, if the barber on the left looked harassed and his shop was dirty, it might well be because he had many customers – a sign that he did good work. Also, assuming that barbers don’t cut their own hair, and bearing in mind that there were only two barbers in the town, it was very likely that these men cut each other’s hair. Which meant that their hairstyles were an indication not of their own skill, but that of their competitor’s. All of which goes to show that when you are choosing a barber, it’s very important to carefully distinguish the voice or voices you are listening to.

And if this is true of choosing someone to style your hair, isn’t it even more true if you are choosing someone to shape your life? Today, perhaps more than ever before, many of us enjoy a wide range of lifestyle choices. But how do we make these choices? What voice or voices do we listen to? Which life-stylist do we end up choosing?

These are among the questions that our readings invite us to ask ourselves on this Good Shepherd Sunday. For what is Jesus doing in the gospel today, if not presenting himself to us as the best life-stylist we can ever hope to have? Even more than a good lifestyle, to all who choose to follow him, to all who allow him to shepherd them, Jesus promises eternal life. They shall not perish. Of course, this sounds very attractive. But there is also something about this that is very surprising, even deeply shocking.

What image comes to your mind when you think of a good shepherd, someone whom you are likely to choose to help you shape your life? The people of Jesus’ time had a very particular image in mind. Shepherd was a word that they used to refer to their king. And the greatest of all their kings was, of course, David, who though he was small of stature, was mighty enough to slay the fearsome Philistine, Goliath. And yet, consider the image of the shepherd in the second reading from the book of Revelations. It is true that here we find ourselves in the throne room of a great king, someone who, we are told, will lead the people to springs of life-giving water, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. But notice also how this shepherd king is described. Even more surprising, even more shocking, than the messy barber with the bad haircut, here we find a shepherd who has become a sheep. Not just any sheep, but a lamb – the weakest and smallest of sheep. And not just any lamb, but a lamb that has been slain, one whose blood has been shed for the life of the sheep. If this image doesn’t unsettle us, it’s probably because we have grown too familiar with it. We’ve forgotten what it means to follow this shepherd who is also a slaughtered lamb.

Which is why the experiences of Paul and Barnabas in the first reading are so helpful. They show us what this lifestyle looks like. They remind us that to follow this shepherd, who is also a lamb, we the sheep must be willing to become shepherds ourselves. For it is as shepherds that Paul and Barnabas travel from place to place, proclaiming the Good News to all. The first reading also reminds us that although God promises to wipe away the tears from the eyes of the sheep, to adopt the shepherd’s lifestyle also means we have to accept the trials – and yes, even the persecutions – that can come to us as a result. In the first reading, the effectiveness of their preaching lead to Paul and Barnabas being expelled from the city of Antioch in Pisidia.

But if this lifestyle is so shockingly unattractive, how do we come to choose it? Like that tourist looking for a haircut, the choice we end up making depends upon the voice or voices that we pay attention to. In our world, there are many voices that make a choice for the Good Shepherd look very foolish. Consider, for example, the voice that influences so many of us so strongly today – the voice of consumerism. Listening to this voice leads us to assume, among other things, that a happy life means doing all we can only to avoid trouble and to increase our material possessions. If you have an apartment, work for a house. If you have a Toyota, work for a Lexus. If you have cable, work for HD TV. If you have a Timex, work for a Rolex. In contrast, in the gospel, Jesus tells us that my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. And this voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks to us not of consumption but of compassion and care, the same compassion that turned Jesus into a slain lamb, the same care that turned Paul and Barnabas into courageous shepherds.

Sisters and brothers, as you know, in addition to being Good Shepherd Sunday, today is also Vocations Sunday. It is the day when we pray for more good vocations to the priesthood, the religious life, and to lay ministries. And that is, of course, a very good thing to do. But isn’t it true that as much as we may pray for others to find their vocations, we ourselves tend to forget that each of us also has a vocation of our own? As we know, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means to call. And it is not just priests and religious, not just deacons and lay ministers who are called. Rather, whether we are married or single, young or old, male or female, by the very fact of our baptism, are we not all called to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, the same voice that continually speaks to us of the need for compassion and care, challenging us to reach out and to shepherd others?

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whose voice are we heeding, which life-stylist are we choosing today?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

3rd Sunday in Easter (C)
It’s a Dog’s Life!

Picture: cc avidday

It’s a dog’s life!

Dear sisters and brothers, you’re probably familiar with this expression right? It’s a dog’s life! People usually say that when they get the feeling that their lives are not worth living, when, for example, it seems as though they are spending all their time doing only what other people tell them to do, when it feels like they have absolutely no freedom to do what they themselves want to do. How frustrating! Urgh, it’s a dog’s life!

Maybe we all feel this way from time to time. But sometimes, for some of us, the feeling can become so strong that we can’t seem to shake it off. It’s there when we wake up in the morning. It follows us around as we go through our day. And it’s the last feeling we have before we fall asleep at night. We even have a special name for such a situation. We call it a mid-life crisis. But such experiences can hit us whether we are young or old. For what is a mid-life crisis if not a questioning of worth? We look at all the people and activities that fill our lives, and we begin to ask ourselves whether or not they are really worth our spending our whole life on them. Is it really worthwhile continuing to be faithful to my wife or husband, responsibly caring for my kids, and obediently clocking in at that boring job everyday? But even more basic than that, in a mid-life crisis, one questions not just the worth of others but also one’s own worth. Who am I really? What do I stand for? Do I even deserve having a good life? Such questions are not easy to answer. Which is why, many people end up doing rather strange things when such a crisis hits. Some people change their hairstyles. Others change their cars. Still others change their wives or husbands. Urgh, if it feels like yours is a dog’s life, then change it! There’s some wisdom in that, I guess. But does it really work? Does simply trading in your old car or your old spouse for the latest model really make life more worth living?

Which is why, if you think about it, maybe it’s not such a bad thing being a dog. I can’t be completely sure, but I don’t think dogs ever face issues of worthiness. I don’t think they ever ask themselves whether or not their lives are worth living. Things are really quite simple for a dog. If you feed me, I’ll happily obey you. No questions asked. And I’ll even have fun doing it. Unlike humans, dogs don’t have mid-life crises. But we’re not dogs. Like it or not, facing questions of worthiness is an unavoidable, and maybe even healthy, part of being human.

We see as much in our Mass readings on this third Sunday in Easter. Consider for a moment the experiences of Simon Peter and the other apostles. What was it like for them, who had left everything to follow Jesus, only to see him arrested and put to death on a cross? What was it like for Peter, who had denied his Master three times, after having boasted that he would give his life for him? Was it not likely that each of these men were facing deep and disturbing questions of worthiness? Now that Jesus had died, was it really worthwhile to continue walking the way that he had marked out for them? And were they worthy to do it even if they wanted to, they who had so shamefully deserted their Master when he needed them most? Urgh, it’s a dog’s life!

But, unlike many other people going through a mid-life crisis, Simon Peter and the other apostles don’t react by paying a visit to the car dealership. Instead, they go fishing. It’s not quite clear why exactly they do that. Some bible commentators say they were reverting to their earlier occupation. They were returning to what was familiar and safe. Perhaps. But we may also wonder if there may not be another explanation. We may remember that it was while in their boats, on the Sea of Galilee, that Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee first received their call from Jesus. It was as fishermen that they first fell in love with and had their lives turned around by the carpenter from Nazareth. Follow me and I will make you fishers of people (cf., Mark 1:17). So that, when faced with doubts about this life that they had chosen, isn’t it natural that they should return to the place of their call? Just as when one faces doubts about the person one has married, isn’t it logical to revisit, from time to time, the circumstances in which one first fell in love?

If this is true, then live fish are not the only things that Peter and the other apostles are trying to catch. More than anything else, they are trying to discover again that which makes their lives worth living. And isn’t this also what the Crucified and Risen Christ is asking them about when he shouts to them from the shore of the lake? Children, have you caught anything to eat? More than just inquiring about fish to fill their bellies, Jesus is asking them whether or not they have found that mysterious something that could satisfy their hearts, that sense of purpose and worthiness that could give new inspiration to their lives. Have you caught that? And when their answer is no. Jesus sets out to help them. Not only does he guide them to where the fish are, but he even prepares breakfast for them. With bread and fish, over a charcoal fire, Jesus invites them to a meal that should remind us of the Eucharist that we are about to celebrate, a banquet that fills not just bellies with food, but also hearts and minds with the Holy Spirit. And the effects of this Spirit are seen in the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Not unlike a dog that has just been fed by its Master, Peter finds new motivation to obey. Do you love me… Yes, Lord, you know that I love you… Feed my sheep… Once again, on the shore of the lake, Peter falls in love.

And with that love comes a new sense of worthiness, both of the One who calls and of the one called. It is this same sense of worthiness that the heavenly hosts are singing about in the second reading. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing. It is also this same sense of worthiness that Peter and the apostles experience in the first reading. After having been interrogated and beaten by the Jewish authorities for teaching in the name of Jesus, we are told that they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. Having been fed at the table of Christ’s love, Peter and the other apostles find new worth in themselves, in the lives they are called to live, and in the One who called them to it. They find new strength to obey. Their mid-life crisis is successfully negotiated.

Sisters and brothers, even if we may, at times, experience crises of one sort or another, we are all called to live not the lives of dogs but truly human lives, lives that are worth living because of the love that God has poured into our hearts through the Crucified and Risen Christ, the same love that we are celebrating in this joyful season of Easter.

Sisters and brothers, on this third Sunday of Easter, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is what kind of life are we living today?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

2nd Sunday in Easter (C)
Divine Mercy Sunday
Sprint Spectators and Relay Runners

Dear sisters and brothers, do you like athletics? When the summer Olympics come around, for example, what track events do you like to watch? The sprints are among my favorites. Some of us might still remember the men’s 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blew away the rest of the field. But victories are not always so clear-cut, right? Especially in 100m races, the finish can be so close that it’s not possible to tell who the winner is, at least not with the naked eye. We call such suspense-filled situations photo finishes, because we have to rely on photography to reveal the winner. We have to wait anxiously – even if it’s just for a few minutes – to find out the result. In such situations, it’s as if technology performs for us a work of mercy. It changes our nail-biting anxiety into final certainty. And – if our runner has won – even into joy. Technology can give us a reason to celebrate. But how should we celebrate? What is the appropriate way for us to rejoice?

The story is told of how someone was watching a very close race. And when his runner finally crossed the finish line first, he was overjoyed. For a few brief moments he jumped up and down, shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs in celebration. It was only when he noticed people frantically pointing and screaming at him that he was brought back down to earth. It was only then that he remembered who he was and what he was supposed to do. You see he was not just a spectator watching a sprint. He was also the next runner in a relay. To celebrate his teammate’s triumph, he had to do more than just jump up and down. He had to pick up the baton and run!

Which brings us to our Mass readings today – the eighth day of the Octave of Easter, the second Sunday of the Easter Season, and Divine Mercy Sunday. This is a day when we celebrate both the joy and the mercy that are the gifts of the Crucified and Risen Christ. As we heard in our responsorial psalm, God’s mercy endures forever. But what does this mercy look like? And how should we express our joy? How are we supposed to celebrate?

If our gospel story is anything to go by, the experience of the joy and mercy of Easter are not unlike what happens when spectators receive electronic confirmation that their runner has won. Consider the disciples in the upper room. Their hearts are filled with fear and anxiety because it seems very clear to them that the runner they have been backing has lost the race. Even worse, he has been disqualified and disgraced. He has been labeled a criminal and executed. What will happen to them, his supporters, now? Better to play it safe. Better to hide away behind locked doors. Not just the locked doors of an upper room, but also the sealed entrances of their hearts.

But, marvel of marvels, even though the doors are locked, Jesus finds a way in. He meets the disciples where they are. Knowing that they are trapped in their own anxiety and despair, Jesus enters to set them free. Somehow, mysteriously, he finds a way into the fear-filled room and the doubtful heart. And he brings with him news of great joy. He assures his friends and supporters that, contrary to all appearances, he has actually won the race. To fearful hearts he brings peace. To guilty consciences, he brings mercy. Like the miracle of high-tech photography after a tight race, Jesus helps his disciples to see the truth that is invisible to the naked eye. He gives them a reason to rejoice. Such are the awesome workings of Divine Mercy. Such is the wonderful power of Easter Joy.

But that’s only half the story, isn’t it? It’s not just to reassure anxious spectators that the Crucified and Risen Christ enters into confined spaces. His aim is to do more. Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.... Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them. Whose sins you retain, are retained. More than simply giving spectators a reason to rejoice, by these words, our Lord is passing on a baton to fellow runners in a relay.

And we see the results of this baton-passing in the first reading, where we are told that crowds of people were flocking to the apostles bringing with them the sick and those possessed by unclean spirits. Indeed, they were even laying people out on the road so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them. And they were all cured. The second reading also gives us a peek at how the apostle John ran with the baton that he had received from his Master. John finds himself exiled on the island of Patmos because he proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus. But even on his island prison, John continues to run the race. In response to instructions received in a vision, he begins to write down his experiences so that others might find inspiration and consolation in them. And, as we know, even the infamous doubting Thomas continued to run the race. Tradition has it that he carried the baton of faith to far-off India, where communities of St. Thomas Christians can be found even to this day.

Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed! Sisters and brothers, we know well this declaration that Jesus makes in response to Thomas’ profession of faith. And we often count ourselves among those whom Jesus considers blessed. After all, aren’t we the ones who have come to believe in Christ even though we haven’t actually seen him? But are we, really? Do we truly believe? Don’t we need first to consider carefully what belief looks like, before we can claim to have it? And, if our readings are anything to go by, there are at least two aspects to belief. There is first the joy that comes from experiencing divine mercy. But then, there is also the effort involved in sharing that same mercy with others. To be a true believer is to experience the joy of knowing that our runner has already won. But it is also to pick up his baton to continue the race. It is only when we are doing both these things that we can consider ourselves among the blessed. Otherwise, perhaps it’s better for us simply to learn from the example of Thomas. Perhaps it’s better to humbly acknowledge our doubts to the Lord, so that he might enter, once again, into our hearts to dispel them for us.

Today’s issue of the LA Times carries an interview with Fr. Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a non-profit organization that ministers to gang members in LA. In the interview, Fr. Boyle quotes the following line from a speech by the late Martin Luther King, Jr. I have felt the power of God transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. 

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, how strong is our desire to feel this merciful power of God to transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope? How ready are we to pick up the baton and to continue running the race today?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Sunday (C) (Morning Mass) 
Investigating the Scene

Dear sisters and brothers, do any of you watch CSI? You know what CSI stands for right? Crime Scene Investigation. As you know, this TV series is about how a team of crime scene investigators goes about catching the bad guys. Each episode has its own story. But, if you watch the series enough, you will know that every episode shares important similarities with all the others. The CSIs usually follow the same process. There are at least three steps.

The first step involves locating the crime scene. Sometimes, this requires nothing more than responding to a 911 call. But, at other times, the team has to put in more effort. A body may have been dumped someplace, for example. And the team needs to find the location of the murder, because that’s where much of the evidence will be found, evidence that will be crucial for uncovering the truth of what actually happened, and for catching the murderer.

Once the scene has been found, the yellow police tape goes up around it, and the team gets to work. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it, the kind of evidence that the team uncovers? Usually, to the untrained eye, the scene says nothing, except that a crime has been committed. But then, the CSIs will use many different techniques and tools to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye. They have special powders for lifting fingerprints, for example, chemical solutions for revealing bloodstains -- even after they have been cleaned up -- and colored lights to reveal bodily fluids and gunshot residue. Gradually, the scene is made to reveal its secrets. The truth of what actually happened is uncovered. But that’s not the end of the story. The third and final step involves one or more of the CSIs going to court to present the evidence that they have gathered. And, if all goes well, with the help of their testimony, the bad guys are made to pay for their misdeeds. Crimes are transformed into a conviction.

Locating the scene, studying the evidence, and giving testimony. These are the three key steps for the work of crime scene investigation, three important stages for arriving at the truth. And, strange as it may seem, on Easter Sunday – the first day in a season that lasts for fifty days – our Mass readings also propose to us three similar steps for entering into the great mystery, the marvelous experience, of Easter.

Consider how the story begins in the gospel. It opens with Mary of Magdala stumbling upon what she takes to be the scene of a crime. Coming to Jesus’ tomb, she finds the stone rolled away, and she immediately thinks the worse. They have taken the Lord from the tomb… For Mary, the empty tomb would, of course, be only the latest in a whole series of crime scenes. For before being buried in the tomb, her beloved Jesus had been unjustly condemned, first before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and then in the Roman Praetorium. He had been savagely scourged at the pillar, cruelly mistreated on the road, and then shamefully crucified on Calvary. But, for Mary of Magdala, the tomb is the scene of greatest importance, for it is here that she last saw her Lord. This is the place where she laid him to rest, and with him, all of her hopes and dreams. If Mary is to have an experience of the mystery of the Resurrection, if she is to enter into the joy of Easter, the tomb is the place to begin.

But locating the scene is only the first step. And, at this point, Mary is still looking at the tomb with untrained eyes. She is not yet gathering evidence like a CSI. She is still unable to penetrate the mystery. But at least she is at the scene. The other disciples are not even there yet. It is only when Mary runs off to call them that Peter and the beloved disciple come to investigate. And together they begin to uncover the truth. They begin to enter into the mystery. Not satisfied with remaining outside, they go into the tomb, and begin to see the evidence in a different light. Beyond the moved stone and the empty space, they notice also the burial cloths that had been used to wrap Jesus. Would grave robbers have bothered to remove them from the body? They notice also the cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ head. It’s been neatly rolled up. Would criminals have bothered to do that?

The gospel tells us that, at this point, the disciples still do not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. But they are learning. Gradually, they are coming to see things with new eyes. They are learning to do what the second reading advises us to do: to think of what is above, not of what is on earth. Not that they are to try to escape from the earth, but they need to look at earthly things with hearts set on things above. And, before long, the risen Lord will appear to them to help them. He will teach them to analyze the evidence like true CSIs. He will show them how his experience fulfills the Scriptures. He will convince them that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and then enter into his glory (cf. Luke 24:26). He will revive their hopes and renew their strength, so that they can move on to the next stage of the Easter process.

This is the step that we find Peter taking in the first reading. Fearlessly, and with great conviction, Peter testifies to the truth. He presents all the evidence of the Jesus-story. He includes everything he knows. He doesn’t leave out even the terrible suffering of the One who was crucified. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, he says. And, according to the Scriptures, God’s curse rests on him who hangs on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). But, above all, Peter proclaims the newness of life that is the gift of the Risen Christ to all who would believe in him. And here’s where we find a significant difference between CSI the TV series and the Easter story. The TV CSIs can only hope to change a crime into a conviction. The followers of Christ, however, can expect a far more marvelous transformation, nothing less than from guilt to forgiveness, from pain to joy, from despair to hope, from death to life. For this is the mystery of Easter, the gift of the Crucified and Risen Christ, the same gift that each of us is called, by our baptism, to share.

But in order to arrive at this destination, in order to experience this marvelous transformation, each and all of us must be willing to take the first step. We must first locate the scene of the crime, that place where our hopes and dreams are buried, that location where we might have laid the Lord to rest behind a cold heavy stone. For some of us, this might be a painful memory. For others, it might be a difficult situation that is still ongoing. Whatever it may be, this is where we need to go to experience the Resurrection. This is where Easter begins for us.

Sisters and brothers, as we commence these fifty joyous days of the Easter Season, is there a crime scene that we need to investigate today?