Feast of the Good Shepherd
Based upon the following Scripture readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 2:20b-25, John 10:1-10.
One Sunday, in the former repressive Soviet Union, Christians arrived at a house church in small groups throughout the day so not to arouse the suspicion of KGB informers. They began by singing a hymn quietly. Suddenly, in walked two soldiers with loaded weapons at the ready. One shouted, "If you wish to renounce your commitment to Jesus Christ, leave now!"
Two or three quickly left, then another. After a few more seconds, two more.
"This is your last chance. Either turn against your faith in Christ," he ordered, "or stay and suffer the consequences."
Two more slipped out into the night. No one else moved. Parents with children trembling beside them looked down reassuringly, fully expecting to be gunned down or imprisoned.
The other soldier closed the door, looked back at those who stood against the wall and said, 'Keep your hands up--but this time in praise to our Lord Jesus Christ. We, too, are Christians. We were sent to another house church several weeks ago to arrest a group of believers. But, instead, we were converted! We have learned by experience, however, that unless people are willing to sacrifice for their faith, their faith is worthless.
In our second reading today, Peter tells us that as Christians, we are called to model our lives on the example Christ, the suffering servant of humanity. If the church and its members are truly the body of Christ, as Paul claims, shouldn't it also have some wounds? Where are our wounds? Where are the scars we bear for following the teachings and example of Christ? Perhaps the call to comfort rings louder than the call to bear a cross.
The call to martyrdom isn't something that only happened in the early church. In our lifetime, people have been called to the supreme sacrifice, to die for their faith. Most of us are not called to that level of commitment, to give the supreme sacrifice. But we are called to sacrifice for our faith and to follow the example of Christ, the good shepherd.
There is a contemporary example which both St. Joseph's and the church of the Diocese of Rochester are facing. It is known as Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium. For the past year, I have been conducting an evaluation of our pastoral planning process, in which I understand you are currently participating. I know nothing however, about your planning group specifically, but am speaking of my general knowledge of the process. Also, I speak here not as a representative of the diocese, but from my personal experience. And I must tell you, there are times that I am saddened and discouraged by what I have seen.
Many, if not most, parishes approach this process from a me first perspective. The only thing that matters is that we keep our church and our priest. If that means that our neighbor down the road must go without, well we're sorry, but that's not our fault, it's somebody else's. But what matters most is that we keep our church and our priest, as if the very survival of their faith depended upon it. And for some it does. Their faith has short roots which only extend into a building they call church and not into the rich, deep, productive soil of faith in Jesus Christ the risen Lord.
But wait a minute, I have a right to my church and a right to have a priest in it, right? You see, here is one of the sources of our problem, our rights. We live in, what I believe, is the greatest country on this planet. And we are renowned for our individual liberties, our rights. But having rights is not what makes us great, having rights in many cases is simply a recognition of the truth, "we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, chief among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." No, my friends, these rights are not what makes us great as a nation. It is our willingness to put our self interest aside for the sake of others. It is our charity, our willingness to give to others, our concern for others, our rich history of volunteerism which is almost unheard of in many parts of the world. This is the essence of our greatness.
But these rights are so burned into our psyche that we almost cannot help but see things from this self centered, me first perspective. We have a closed fist desperately trying to hang on to the past, to the known, to the familiar. Why? Because we are afraid of the unknown, of that which is even only slightly different from our own experience. Where is the faith in that? Where is the trust in Jesus words at the end of Matthew's gospel when he said that I must go to the Father but know that I am with you always, even to the end of time?
And does this reflect the self sacrifice to which Jesus, the good shepherd, demonstrated in his own life and to which we as his followers are called? We don't give a second thought to driving the 10 miles to shop at Marketplace Mall for something we want, but howl with indignation if someone suggests we do the same thing for church. Why is that and what does it say about us?
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early church was so attractive that people were drawn to it. This is what made the early church so attractive, the fact that they demonstrated their love for God by sacrificing for each other. What is attractive about a church that seeks only to hold onto its own. Heck I don't have to go to church to see that, I see it on television every night. We all have some dying to do. We need to die a little bit each day to our own self interest. Jesus showed us how it should be done.
There is a story about Pope John XXIII, the beloved pope of my youth, who was visiting a blind boy in a hospital. The boy said, "I know you are Pope but I can't see you." The pope was so moved by the boy's words that he sat with the boy for a time, in the still, silent language of love's presence.
How many people might say the same thing about us, "I know you are Christian, but I can't see it." I can't see your life taking on the shape and form of Christ's life of service and sacrifice. Have we really thought through the implications of Christ getting on his knees at the last supper and washing the disciples feet? Do we take his command seriously to do likewise? If we really believed Peter's words in the 2nd reading that those who suffer for doing what is right win God's approval, we would be tripping over each other, insisting that it should be our church that makes the sacrifice, not our neighbors.
And if we won't sacrifice for our fellow Catholic down the road a piece, will we sacrifice for the stranger, for the unchurched that God pleads with us to bring home?
I leave you today with some hard questions and a challenge. If my words made you angry it could be because they touched a truth inside of you that most of us don't like to face. I would also like to leave you with the image of a closed fist. As long as we hold tightly onto the past, which is really rooted in our fear of uncertainty, what can God fill our hand with? Whatever gift God might want to give to us, we can't grasp it until we let go of our fear, our mistrust, our self-centeredness manifested in the me-first mentality. But that is so hard, near impossible, we might complain. This is true, it is hard, but we must try and we have the perfect example of Christ, the good shepherd who loves us all.