Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I think most of the time, we really need to be reassured that we are in the hands of God.  Things here on earth can be pretty uncertain on a daily basis.  The state of the economy, wars being fought all over the globe, terrorism and natural disasters, the disrespect for human life, antagonism toward Christ-like values, all of this makes us feel pretty uncertain, at best.  Add to that the stuff that affects us directly: illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, family difficulties, our own sins – all of this may find us asking the question from time to time, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s why it’s so good to hear Jesus say today:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.

This does not, of course, mean that life is going to be easier for us, or that we won’t still be challenged in this world. But it does give us confidence that we are on the right track, and that our ways are being guarded.  With this confidence, we are expected then to be disciples.  We are expected to go forth and do what God asks of us, ministering to those in need, reaching out to the broken, preaching the Good News just by the way that we live our life.

We can live and preach the Gospel with confidence, we can be called Christians as our brothers and sisters in the first reading were for the first time, knowing that God has our back.  Whatever we may suffer in this life for the sake of Christ will more than be rewarded in the life to come.  And the good works we do here on earth, as small as they may seem to us in the face of such adversity, are never for nothing: God takes our efforts and makes them huge advances in the battle for souls.

Jesus says that the Father is greater than all, and that all of us, safe in the Father’s hands, can never be taken from him.  Praise God for his providence and mercy and protection today.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Some days, I think there isn’t much I would do for just five minutes of peace and quiet.

If you’re a parent, maybe you’d amend that to longing for just five seconds of peace and quiet!  We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us.  And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think.  How often do we get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor?  Can we even get through a car ride without having the radio going?  Is the television always the background noise in our homes?  I know I’m guilty of those myself.  There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.

And the noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good.  The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley.  I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely.  There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power.  Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church.  Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves.  And those voices are wrong, dead wrong.

Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.”  The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray.  That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Doctor Phil and Joel Osteen have become so popular in this day and age.

So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep.  Now I want to be careful about saying that, because being like sheep has a pretty negative connotation.  To be clear: I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience.  Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think of them.  Here’s the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold:  In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night.  Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.”  The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (cf. Jude Sicilliano, OP)

We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence and the ability to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, being led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there.  We are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd.  When we deny that, we’ve already lost any hope of the glory of heaven.  We desperately need the guidance of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death.  Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”  We just have to stop settling for the noise out there and tune in to our Savior’s voice.

Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week.  Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head.  And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing  the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Jesus uses a very familiar image today to illustrate the significance of following one’s vocation in life.  He talks about a shepherd, which in an agrarian culture like his own, would have immediately made sense to his hearers.  In a suburban place in the modern world, it loses some of its immediacy, but I still think Jesus’ illustration is a good one.

We know basically what a shepherd does, right?  He cares for a flock of sheep.  The shepherd has an important task: he must keep the flock healthy and safe, so that the flock’s owners will be able to get a good price for them at market.  He has to find good grazing grounds so the sheep can be fed, must see that they stay together and get to market, and has to keep them safe from predators.  Jesus makes a distinction between good and bad shepherds: those who actually care for the sheep as opposed to hired hands who don’t really care.  When a predator comes along, the hired hand takes off, leaving the sheep in harm’s way.  But not the good shepherd: that shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Of course, Jesus illustrates this beautifully in his own life, and we’ve seen that in these Easter days.  The sheep are God’s people, the danger is sin and death, the hired hands who didn’t really care about the sheep were the religious leaders of the time, and the Good Shepherd is Jesus, who laid down his life for God’s people in his crucifixion.  That’s what good shepherds do: they give their lives for the flock.
So here’s the take-away: we are all called to be good shepherds.  We all have a flock.  For a priest, that flock is his parish.  For a religious brother or sister, that flock is the community in which they live.  For parents, it’s their families.  You get the idea.  But the important detail is that the task is the same: to save their flock from all danger of the foe.  The foe remains sin and death, brought about by the predator who is the devil.  The vocation of us shepherds is to get the sheep of our flock to heaven, which is a participation in the vocation of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Which means we have to be true to our promises. For priests, that would be preaching the Gospel faithfully, not just telling people what they want to hear, but challenging them to grow in their relationship with Christ.  For parents that means being faithful in their marriages and diligently bringing their children up in the practice of the faith, as they promised at their child’s baptism.
What’s important to know is this: all of our vocations work together.  If we’re all faithful to our promises, God can do his work in us and through us.  For example, when parents faithfully bring their children to Mass, and priests faithfully preach the Gospel, then children can grow up with a relationship with our Lord that will see them through whatever life throws at them, and can bring them one day to their goal of eternal life.
To all of this, there are many distractions, wolves that threaten to scatter and destroy the flock.  But if we are good shepherds, then we can count on the guidance of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to bless our efforts and lead us all to life.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Some days, I think there isn’t much I would do for just five minutes of peace and quiet.

If you’re a parent, maybe you’d amend that to longing for just five seconds of peace and quiet!  We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us.  And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think.  I’ve been to many a parish meeting where, when we are praying, someone jumps in to fill a moment of silence, when silence would have been good for all of us.  And don’t we often get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor?  I know I’m guilty of that.  There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.

And the noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good.  The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley.  I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely.  There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power.  Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church.  Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves.  And those voices are wrong, dead wrong.

Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.”  The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray.  That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Doctor Phil have become so popular in this day and age.

So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep.  And I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience.  Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think of them.  Here’s the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold:  In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night.  Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.”  The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (Jude Sicilliano, OP)

We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence and the ability to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, being led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there.  As we rediscovered during Lent, we are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd.  We desperately need the guidance of the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death.  Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”

Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week.  Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head.  And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing  the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

When God made the human person, he put into him and her a hunger and a thirst that could only be filled up with God.  God made us for himself, because he is Love itself and Love must always have an object of that love.  As Saint Augustine said well, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  The Psalmist also says that today in his words:

As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?

Given that all people are created with this spiritual hunger, it should not have come as a huge shock to the circumcised believers that many Gentiles were turning to follow Christ.  Christ showed us the most perfect way to the Father, the only One who can fill up all the longings of the human heart.  Every conversion story is a return of the soul to our God; a filling up of the heart with what it really lacks.

We try to fill up our lives with all kinds of things.  We turn on the television to drown out the silence.  We seek refuge in food and drink and career and even darker things.  But all of this is nothing more than a misguided attempt to fill up our lives with things that do not matter.  We can only fill ourselves up with what we truly long for: God himself.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading speaks of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  However, I have two problems with that.  First, who wants to be compared to sheep?  Sheep are not the brightest of animals, and they must remain in their flock to defend themselves against even the most innocuous of predators.  Second, how are the sheep, if that is how we are to be called, to hear the shepherd in this day and age?  There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.

So let’s look at these issues.  First, many who raise and nurture sheep would perhaps disagree with my assessment that they aren’t very bright.  I have been told that sheep do have the innate ability to hear their master’s voice, and that they also innately wish to remain part of the flock.  So we can see that sheep seem to know what it takes to survive.  And maybe we don’t know that as well as we should.  How often do we place a priority on being within earshot of our Master?  How willing are we to remain part of the community in good times and in bad?  Yet Jesus makes it clear today that this is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

So what will it take to overcome my second objection?  What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice?  We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise.  We who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or iPods implanted firmly in our ears?  We who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives?  If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to salvation?

The “elephant in the room” question, though, is this: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known?  Today is the world day of prayer for vocations.  And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood, religious life and the permanent diaconate.  Because it is these vocations, and especially the priesthood, that are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world.  This is a special, and difficult challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it.  We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Peter and the other disciples were quickly finding out.  But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for.  People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will the voice of Jesus when I retire?  Who will be that voice when there aren’t enough priests in our diocese for every church to have one?  Who will preach the Word of God when Deacon Frank, Deacon Alex, Deacon Al and Deacon Dave retire?

We know that every person has a vocation.  Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation.  Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith.  Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents.  Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy.  The list goes on.  Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

Eleven years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation.  Honestly, I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood.  But I did not want to go.  I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well.  But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted.  I had found out that there was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office.  I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t going.  And that day, the celebrant preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I already knew the answer to that question: God wanted me to go to that vocations open house that day, and so I did.  Four months later, I was in seminary.

What about you?  Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life?  Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did, although perhaps it does.  Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple.  But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel.  Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional.  And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life.  And for those who are fathers and empty nesters, it’s quite possible that you feel a tug in your heart to do something more to live the Gospel.  Maybe you are being called to a life of service as a permanent deacon.

On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you.  I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s brief Gospel reading begins with the wonderful line, “My sheep hear my voice.” However, I have two problems with that. First, who wants to be compared to sheep? Sheep are not the brightest of animals, and they must remain in their flock to defend themselves against even the most innocuous of predators. Second, how are the sheep, if that is how we are to be called, to hear the shepherd in this day and age? There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.

So let’s look at these issues. First, many who raise and nurture sheep would perhaps disagree with my assessment that they aren’t very bright. I have been told that sheep do have the innate ability to hear their master’s voice, which helps them to survive. Add that to the fact that they also innately wish to remain part of the flock, and we can see that sheep seem to know what it takes to survive. And maybe we don’t know that as well as we should. How often do we place a priority on being within earshot of our Master? How willing are we to remain part of the community in good times and in bad? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that this is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

So what will it take to overcome my second objection? What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice? We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise. We who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or iPods implanted firmly in our ears? We who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives? If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to the Promise? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that entering into the silence and listening for his voice is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

The real question, though, is this: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known? Today is the world day of prayer for vocations. And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Because it is these vocations, and especially the priesthood, that are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world. This is a special, and difficult challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it. We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Paul and Barnabas found out. But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for. People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will be that voice when I retire? Who will be that voice when there aren’t enough priests in our diocese for every church to have one?

We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

Nine years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation. I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood. But I did not want to go. I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well. But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted. There was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office. I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t going. And that day, the celebrant stood right here and preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I already knew the answer to that question: God wanted me to go to that vocations open house that day, and so I did. Four months later, I was in seminary.

What about you? Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did. Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple. But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel. Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional. And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life. On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you. I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.

So I ask you all to bow your heads now and join me in prayer for all holy vocations:

Faithful God,
You sent your son, Jesus,
to be our Good Shepherd.

Through our baptism
you blessed us and called us

to follow Jesus who leads uson the path of life.
Renew in us the desire to remain faithful
to our commitment to serve you and the Church.
Bless all who dedicate their lives to you
through marriage, the single life, the diaconate,
priesthood, and consecrated life.
Give insight to those
who are discerning their vocation.
Send us to proclaim the Good News
of Jesus, our Good Shepherd,
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.