Sunday, May 07, 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday: The Center Holds

(Fourth Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 6, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI and May 7 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI, St. Patrick Church in Harrissville, R.I. and Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I.; See John 10:1-10)

A number of years ago I was visiting a priest friend who lives in the region of Italy called Puglia.  If you are looking at a map of Italy, Puglia is located in the heel of the boot.  It is the southern-most region of the country.  At one point, we were able to drive to the coast and visit the Basilica named “St. Mary at the End of the Earth” (Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae).  The basilica commemorates St. Peter’s apostolic journey from Jerusalem to Italy, and his fulfillment of Jesus’ command to bear witness to Him “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Before he suffered martyrdom in Rome, it is believed that St. Peter went to the “end of the earth” as he knew it, and proclaimed the Good News.

As we were making our way back to the monastery, traveling on a small, country road, we suddenly saw a shepherd in a nearby field. A small flock of about twenty sheep trailed behind him.  I thought, “Here is a shepherd literally guiding his flock at the end of the earth!”  That is, in fact, the very image that we get of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the Gospels.  Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who would go to the end of the earth to find us and bring us home.  He goes to the very end of Himself, offering all that He has on the cross, to bring us into eternal life with God.  He is indeed the Good Shepherd!

But is it possible for us, of our own volition, to go beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd?  Could we possibly find ourselves, by our own misused freedom, in a place where we can no longer hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?  St. John the Evangelist, in the Gospel this weekend, indicates that such a thing is, in fact, possible.  He relates to us Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd:

The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.
—John 10:3-4

They follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus explains, but they will not follow the voice of a stranger.  Then, tragically, St. John relates how the Pharisees were not able to receive this beautiful teaching about the Good Shepherd.  He explains:

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
—John 10:6

They could not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. 

They were unable to realize what Jesus was saying to them, because they had grown accustomed to not listening to Him, not hearing Him. 

Time and again, in the synagogue and in the Temple, they had determined not to listen to what Jesus had to say.  Now that He was trying to teach them about Himself, to call them, they “did not realize what he was trying to tell them.”

There is every indication that, in the world we live in, many are not hearing the Good Shepherd.  In the laws that are passed, which violate the gift of human life for the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the unborn, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  In a culture where crimes are committed and live-streamed on Facebook, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  Many baptized Christians today, people that we know and love, are growing more and more accustomed to not hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

In the late 18th century, European civilization and culture began to grow in leaps and bounds during the period known as the Enlightenment.  Scientific advancements were opening up new avenues of knowledge; discoveries were being made that went beyond what could have been imagined centuries before.  Many at that time began to speculate how poverty, crime and other social ills could be eliminated completely.  An “Age of Reason,” would finally replace an age of religion and superstition, where such things as faith in God were useless, at best.  But then something unexpected happened.  The knowledge that was aimed at progress was used to coordinate and facilitate the First World War.  Progress was replaced by destruction of human life on a scale unprecedented, and the Enlightenment project gave way to a broken world.

In 1920, immediately after World War I, Ireland’s William Butler Yeats wrote his famous poem “The Second Coming.”  It is a dark and ominous poem that begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .

Yeats communicated the desperate plight of a culture come loose from its moorings.  Under the guise of freedom, they had drifted so far from the “falconer” that they were unable to come back.  They could no longer hear the call to come home.

Things fall apart . . . the center cannot hold . . .
There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last August that focused on the intense current preoccupation with Yeats’ poem.  It explained that, in the first 7 months of 2016, “The Second Coming” had been cited by journalists and commentators more times than in the 30 years preceding it!  Referring to world terrorism, Brexit, and the U.S. elections, the message was one of apocalyptic despair:  Things are falling apart; the center cannot hold; we have drifted too far away to bring things back together.

It is crucial for us, as people of faith, to recognize that this is NOT the message of Jesus Christ in the Gospel this weekend! 

On the contrary, Jesus Christ cries out to us as the Good Shepherd, with every indication that we can, in fact, hear Him.  We can listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling out to us with a message of hope, a message of peace, and the promise of redemption.  As St. Paul proclaims, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

Jesus Christ promises us this weekend that “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . . . I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 9-10).  We thank God that there are several ways our faith teaches us to listen to that voice of the Good Shepherd. 

Firstly, we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when He calls out to us in the sacramental life of the Church.  The moment we are baptized, we enter into the very life of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit lives and moves in us, calling out to our hearts that we belong to God.  On the altar, the Good Shepherd comes to us, seeking us out, to give Himself to us in His body and blood.  The Eucharist strengthens us to live the Christian life and to consistently hear the voice of God in a world replete with distractions.  The sacraments allow us to tune in to the voice of Jesus Christ.  Can we hear Him?

Secondly, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we listen to the reading of Sacred Scripture in the Mass.  The Church teaches us that, when the word of God is read in the Sacred Liturgy, it is Jesus Christ that speaks to us.  We listen to the readings and Christ speaks to our hearts.  We hear the words of Psalm 23 this weekend, and it is the Good Shepherd that says to us, “I am your shepherd, there is nothing you shall want; I make you to lie down in green pastures, I lead you beside the still waters; I restore your soul.”  Are we listening to Him when He speaks to us in the Mass?

And finally, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we take the time, each day, to be alone and silent before Him.  We take some amount of set time each day to be still with God, to listen to Him and to communicate our thoughts, desires, fears, hopes and joys.  We pray.  God is so eager to speak to us, to encourage and to console us, if only we will open our hearts, trust and believe.  Faith is a gift from God, no doubt; but it is also a response to the one who is calling out to us.  Can we hear that voice, that call of the Good Shepherd?

Because it is absolutely true that God would seek us out anywhere, and bring us home with great love.  If we were to fall away from God and drift thousands of miles away, He would seek us out and find us!  He most certainly is the Good Shepherd that goes to the end of the earth to save us. 

But He would much rather speak to us here.  Now. 

Today, and all throughout this coming week, we ask for the grace to listen well to the voice of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, who constantly calls us to new and abundant life.