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.

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A while ago now, I was working at my home parish, St. Petronille, on the staff as a youth minister.  I remember the parish secretary well, she was a very nice woman named Dorothy.  Whenever you’d ask Dorothy how she was, she’d always say, “Busy, busy, busy!”  And I’m sure that she was busy, but it was almost like she was defending her job or something, afraid anyone would find her sitting around.  In truth, she was the last person anyone would suspect of slacking off.

We have some strange readings today.  Part of the issue is that St. Mark’s Gospel is kind of weird.  As you may know, it’s the shortest of the four Gospels we have.  And so when we read it, we find that everything is packed in a very short space.  Our teens have to read a Gospel for their Confirmation project, and many of them pick Mark because it’s the shortest.  The bad news is, that it’s so short, and with so much packed in, that it can sometimes be a lot harder to understand than the others.

And so as we approach Mark’s Gospel, we almost feel a bit breathless.  The story moves so quickly, and Jesus appears to be a lot like Dorothy: “Busy, busy, busy!”  The man can barely find some time to relax with his disciples, or spend some time in prayer before the crowds are hemming in around him, banging on the door, a whole town’s worth of them, bringing Jesus their hurting and ailing and broken friends and loved ones.  And even though Jesus sympathizes with them, even though he certainly gives them what they ask for, he doesn’t want to be known as the “wonder worker.”  His message is a lot more complex than that, a lot more important than even saving someone’s bodily life.

And the disciples are part of the problem for him.  They don’t get it yet, so they rapidly get caught up in the frenzy.  “Everyone is looking for you,” they tell him, almost as if they too can’t wait to see what Jesus will do next.  And so Jesus becomes a mirror of Job in our first reading, who gives himself to the drudgery of what’s expected of him, without any rest in sight.

Do you feel the weariness?  Do you identify with the frenzy?

I think maybe a lot of us are there right now.  It’s been a long winter, and well, it’s just February, so it could go on another couple of months.  We’ve come through the frantic Christmas season, and just have a couple of weeks to go before we’re into Lent.  Parents, priests, pastoral ministers, all of us are in the middle of frenzy almost all the time.  It can be easy to identify with Job who doesn’t see an end in sight, or at least to feel the frustration of Jesus as he longs to have some quiet time, some time away, to recharge the energy and fill up the reservoir of the Spirit.  And yet it always seems like that time never comes, right?

So I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you have to take some time to be connected to God or to pray more or to have some peace and quiet.  You know that.  You’d probably give anything to experience it.  You probably even know that that quiet, recharging time would make you a better parent, a better employee or employer, a better teacher, a better doctor, a better whatever it is that you do.  We all have obligations imposed on us, just like St. Paul was obligated to preach the Gospel, and just like Jesus had the care of his flock given to him by the Father.  And just like Jesus, when we sneak away – even rising before dawn to steal away for some quiet and prayer – all too soon everybody is looking for us and it’s time to move on to the next thing, and the thing after that.

And we know the problem with all of this.  The problem is that when we run on empty for too long, when we lose track of the last time we had an opportunity to recharge, well, then life becomes a drudgery for us.  And it doesn’t matter that our life is blessed beyond imagining.  It doesn’t matter if we have a dream job, or a wonderful family, or if we’re the smartest kid in school, or live in the nicest house on the block.  If we’re depleted of our joy, then even those blessings are drudgery for us.  Job was right about that, he’s right about a lot of things, and we would do well to read him closely.

So what do we do with this?  How do we make our life less of a drudgery, more spiritual, more connected with Jesus the source and summit of our faith and the source of the energy we need to make our world what it needs to be?  Well, I don’t know that I can give you a recipe.  But I will make some suggestions, and you are free to do with them what you will.

First, make a commitment.  You’ll never do it if you don’t make a commitment right here and now.  So make that part of your offertory today.  As the gifts are being collected, offer a gift of commitment to spiritual growth as a gift to God and yourself.

Don’t the commitment a huge one right away.  Many times people will tell me, “Father, I’ve made a commitment to start spending an hour in prayer every night before bed.”  They may certainly make that commitment, but there is no way they’ll live it.  Forget an hour – I mean it.  If you’re starting from zero, give yourself five minutes.  Or even two minutes if that’s all you can do.  Either before your feet hit the ground in the morning, or right before you close your eyes in sleep at the end of the day.  Then let that amount of time grow as the Spirit prompts you.

Make prayer a part of it.  You have to connect with the Lord, and prayer is the way to do that.  But make it the kind of prayer you can live with.  You don’t need to read a book of the Bible every night before bed, maybe a few verses is what you can do.  If you don’t like to pray the rosary, then don’t promise to do that.  (And I’m not suggesting that you don’t pray the rosary, by the way, I think it’s a very good prayer, and I myself like it, but if it doesn’t work for you then it’s not prayer at all.)  Pray in a way that makes sense to you.

Make quiet a part of it.  Quiet is the part of prayer when we can hear the voice of God or notice the prompting of the Spirit or even just calm things down for five minutes.  Turn off your cell phone (now would be a good time for that, by the way, if you haven’t already), close the door, it’s just five minutes and you and God deserve that quiet time.  You might not hear anything the first 50 times you do this, but you will, when the time is right, when you’ve learned to really listen.

If you mess up and miss a day, don’t beat yourself up.  Just give it a shot again tomorrow.  Eventually, you will find, I guarantee, that you cannot live without this time and you’ll not be able to close your eyes in sleep until you’ve done it.

Be grateful.  Thank God for the two minutes of quiet, or the hour, or whatever it is.  Take note of the blessings that come from it.  Know that all of it is a gift from God and is meant to make your life more powerful and beautiful.

Lent is coming up in a few short weeks.  That’s a good time to recommit ourselves to receiving the gifts God has for us by spending time in prayer.  Some of the energy for doing that has to come from us, we have to make a commitment to God in some way.  But the rest of it will come from God, this God who knows how important it is for us to steal away for a few minutes, even when everyone is looking for us, before we get up and go on to preach in the nearby villages, or take the kids to soccer, or get to the next business meeting, or come to a meeting at church, or whatever the next thing is that’s in store for us.

Our lives are complicated and busy, busy, busy.  But, as the Psalmist says, our Lord longs to heal all of us who are brokenhearted, if only we give him a minute or two to do it.