What have we become?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday I read the following statement made by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, against President Trump’s move to close our borders to immigrants, refugees, and all who seek a better life in the United States.

Statement of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., On Wednesday’s Executive Actions on Immigration

January 27, 2017

I understand the desire for every American to be assured of safe borders and freedom from terrorism.  The federal government should continue a prudent policy aimed at protecting citizens.

I also understand and heed the call of God, who through Moses told the people of Israel: “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).  Jesus asks His disciples to go further, calling on us to recognize Him in the stranger: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me” (Mt. 25:40).

Wednesday’s Executive Actions do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation.  They are the opposite of what it means to be an American.

Closing borders and building walls are not rational acts.  Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.

In fact, threatening the so-called “sanctuary cities” with the withdrawal of federal funding for vital services such as healthcare, education and transportation will not reduce immigration.  It only will harm all good people in those communities.

I am the grandson of immigrants and was raised in a multicultural neighborhood in southwest Detroit.  Throughout my life as a priest and bishop in the United States, I have lived and worked in communities that were enriched by people of many nationalities, languages and faiths.  Those communities were strong, hard-working, law-abiding, and filled with affection for this nation and its people.

Here in Newark, we are in the final steps of preparing to welcome 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This is only the latest group of people whom Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese has helped to resettle during the past 40 years.  This current group of refugees has waited years for this moment and already has been cleared by the federal government.

They have complied with all of the stringent requirements of a vetting process that is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.  Catholic Charities, assisted by parishes and parishioners of the Archdiocese, will help them establish homes, jobs and new lives so that they can contribute positively to life in northern New Jersey.  When this group is settled, we hope to welcome others.

This nation has a long and rich history of welcoming those who have sought refuge because of oppression or fear of death.  The Acadians, French, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews and Vietnamese are just a few of the many groups over the past 260 years whom we have welcomed and helped to find a better, safer life for themselves and their children in America.

Even when such groups were met by irrational fear, prejudice and persecution, the signature benevolence of the United States of American eventually triumphed.

That confident kindness is what has made, and will continue to make, America great.

http://www.rcan.org/statement-cardinal-joseph-w-tobin-cssr-wednesday%E2%80%99s-executive-actions-immigration

Then I read the astonishing comments from self-identified Catholics against the Cardinal, against Pope Francis, and against anyone else who objects to the Trump administration’s inhumane agenda, which frankly is directed against people of color.

These so-called Catholics will stand in their pews this weekend professing their faith in the One who dwells within the stranger. They will hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger”[Zeph 2:3]. They will sing the words of the psalmist, “The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free.” [Psalm 146]. They will listen to admonishment of St. Paul against Christians who boast of their righteousness [1 Cor 1:26-31], and hear Jesus’ words honoring the defenseless among us and insisting that we do the same, regardless of the consequences [Matthew 5:1-12]. They will give each other the kiss of peace, and then they will place the Eucharist in their acid mouths and return to their homes to cheer an agenda that is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents.

Some serious soul searching is called for. What have we become?

I also have to work hard to resist rising feelings of animosity against my fellow Christians who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he knocked on their door and yet dare to use, for example, an image of the Sacred Heart or Blessed Mother or Michael the Archangel or St. Therese the Little Flower as their profile picture and proceed to spew politically motivated venom on good shepherds who speak the truth. Professed Christians who feel justified spitting on Jesus’ face with their vitriol. Jesus wept. So do I. So should you.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

MT 5:1-12

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Readings for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: ZEP 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm: PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
2nd Reading: 1 COR 1:26-31 
Gospel: MT 5:1-12A

What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

#SoBlessed #TheWrongPrayer #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Late one night last week when driving home from a local restaurant with my husband I noticed a push cart near the corner of the street where we live. It was the type of cart that many apartment dwellers use to do their shopping. This cart appeared to be loaded to the top with laundry bags. I craned my neck as we turned the corner; in the shadow of the street light I made out the shape of woman standing beside the cart.

I live in what might be called urban suburbia; our town, an incorporated city, is situated just 8 miles west of Times Square. Like city-dwellers we can set our clocks by the screech of city buses stopping for passengers; we barely take notice of wailing emergency vehicles and find comfort in the train whistles. We can walk a short distance to the deli, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, houses of worship, the theater, even the grocery store. Some city folk might not agree with the “urban” descriptor, but I know better, having lived in suburbia most of my life: this is city life.

My part of town is a poster child for how successful mixed housing works. Our neighbors live in flats over stores, apartment buildings and townhomes. Turn-of-the-century mansions, pre-war homes both grand and modest nestle together on narrow lots on the same block. We are a blend of socio-economic-religious diversity and it is beautiful thing to behold.

But I’ve never seen a person who was obviously experiencing homelessness standing on the corner of my street.

We pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, opened the door to our house and went inside. I thought to myself, “What should I do, what is the appropriate thing to do?” Then, as I contemplated walking outside perhaps to talk to the woman I lost my nerve. I have poor night vision and thought I might be mistaken. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw; and how would I handle the awkward moment when I offered a sandwich to a neighbor who was simply waiting for the bus? #SoManyExcuses.

Early the next morning I looked outside to see the woman and her cart still there, only this time someone was talking with her. I stepped back in the house to grab something to bring her, but when I returned she was gone.

That same day I read a New York Times op-ed written by David Brooks, a journalist I respect greatly. The article, entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table” concerned some friends of Brooks who host Thursday night dinners for some of their son’s classmates—kids who don’t have enough to eat. As Brooks reveals, this family’s loving and generous hospitality fills more than hungry stomachs. The table guests, he says, “have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand.” Brooks writes from his place at the table, where for the past two years he has joined the couple and their guests at these dinners. #MakeRoom

And then I read the readings for this weekend, the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The text from Sirach assures us that God hears our cries, judges fairly and without favoritism, and in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directs a parable to those who believe themselves to be #SoBlessed.

Jesus is so clever. He knows his listeners. If they don’t recognize themselves in the Pharisee whose prayer is to thank God he is not like the despised one who stands off in the distance beating his heart and asking for mercy, they will take the higher, even more hypocritical seat of judgement that looks down on everyone. Thanks be to God we are not like that Pharisee or the toll collector! Suddenly this parable is about the prayer of three people, and we don’t get the irony. And so it goes. Who then will judge us?

To judge another is about as natural a human behavior as can be had. We compare our progress against one another in nearly every capacity of life. Taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, stingy, generous, educated, ignorant, poor, rich, too rich, greedy, lucky, unlucky, lazy, persistent, worthy, unworthy, good Catholic, bad Catholic, true Christian, false Christian, sinner, and saint.

Honestly, is there anything that we don’t judge? To be fair, constructive comparisons and judgments often help us set goals to better ourselves. And that’s a healthy approach. But, when we judge in order to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our own sense of superiority that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s not prayer. That’s self-exaltation.  And that’s not Godly.

Oh Lord, I am glad I am a respectable citizen, and a churchgoer, I thank you that I am not like those who look down on the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that dollar I dropped in a cup last week. #TheWrongPrayer

I did not judge or look down on the woman standing on the corner of my street with what I presume was everything she owned. I did not count my blessings or mumble something lame like “there but for the grace of God go I.” But my sin was what I did not do, and that was to delay showing her the mercy that God was urging me to show her. And then it was too late. #NeverAgain #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

Connecting the Dots

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.”  [Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said to the Pharisees us.

“And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”

Two men lived in close proximity to one another but under very different circumstances, one was wealthy, the other was destitute. Eventually, they both died and went on to the afterlife. The storyline zooms in on a conversation between the former man of privilege, now tormented by the fires in the Netherworld, and Abraham, in whose excellent company the other man, Lazarus, now rested.

In life, privileged people step over the Lazarus’s every day, walk by them, and even know their names. Did the rich man, while lifting his purple robe so as to not brush against the beggar’s wounds as he stepped out of his house, ever think about Lazarus, or drop him a stale crust? Or did he simply look the other way, tsk tsk’ing about lazy people who do nothing all day and expect handouts from hardworking, tax-paying citizens?

The world exists, some might have us believe, for our pleasure. The rich man probably felt he earned the purple garments, fine linen, and sumptuous dining. He worked hard for them, dammit. The poor, wounded man lying outside his door was not his concern.  His sole concern was for himself.

But in death, the formerly privileged man found himself in poor man’s place, begging Abraham to make Lazarus help him. Still, even in death he saw himself as one to be served. Not a single word of remorse for his lack of charity was included with his pleas to Abraham to have Lazarus comfort him, not a moment of regret for his astonishing selfishness in life, not a thought for anyone else, except perhaps for his equally self-absorbed brothers. “If you can’t make Lazarus help me, at least send him to my family!”

Too late, Abraham tells him. It’s too damn late.

This parable, which is the gospel reading for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, is not a prescription for getting to heaven. What it is is a starkly accurate portrayal of modern day attitudes towards the vulnerable, and one that really needs to be taken to heart.

Some might say, “Oh this story is so obvious. It’s exaggerated: just a simple morality play.” Some may protest, “The problem of the poor is so much more complicated than that, we can’t just give to everybody who asks us.” Really?  Is opening our wallet and putting some cash into the hand of a person experiencing homelessness going to lead to the impoverishment of our families?

This parable ought to help us open our eyes and hearts to what we can do to alleviate the world’s suffering, even, and especially if it means making room in our homes, churches, and communities for refugees.

Meanwhile, a 6-year old boy named Alex from Scarsdale, NY sees on television the stunned, dust and blood covered face of a boy about his age, the victim of bombing in a far-off place, and delivers the purest, most uncontaminated contemporary translation of Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus.

In a handwritten letter to the President of the United States, Alex asks “can you please go get him and bring him to our home?” These words flowed from the tender, unsullied heart of a child. “We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

This is a parable for the ages, and we are living it right now. Alex and generations of children are watching, expecting us to do the right thing.

Forgiveness: My Love Overflows

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

I’m an optimist; for me, the glass is nearly always full. But I have to say, look around. Do you see a lot of love happening in our world? I don’t mean love among our families and friends; I mean in our world, and by love I mean expressive, abundant, generous, nurturing and compassionate care between differing peoples and communities. Maybe a little?

How about forgiveness? You know, the kind that opens us and others to change, that makes it possible for good to knock out evil, that seeks peaceful resolutions, that reaches across differences in order to learn from disasters, and in the hardest cases when amends are not possible, the kind that wishes the ones who have harmed us no ill will. Well, do you?

More forgiveness = More Love

Consider the story of the sinful woman as told in Luke’s gospel [LK 7:36-8:3]. But first, allow me to disclose that just saying “the sinful woman” has presented an obstacle to my ability to write this reflection. We are each sinners with a past.

To identify a person with his or her past mistakes, no matter what they may be, is to strip them of the promise of human flourishing which we are each entitled to.

But you and I are guilty of this every single time we disparage or gossip about another person.

The ‘sinful’ woman in Luke’s gospel had no name; her entire being was reduced to the fact that she committed some act that was deemed sinful and irredeemable. For the remainder of her life she would be expected to carry that shameful burden like an unpayable debt.

That is, until she met Jesus.

Imagine the courage it took for her to enter the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was dining—a household where she knew she was judged as unclean.

But it was her faith in Jesus that moved her to place herself, silent but for her weeping, at Jesus’ feet where her sins dissolved into the salt of her tears. Her weeping, washing, wiping, kissing and anointing Jesus’ feet opened a floodgate of love and gratitude within her; the debt was forgiven. The woman’s life was restored. She was free. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [LK 7:50]

Less Forgiveness = Less Love

But Simon the Pharisee, and, I suspect, the others reclining at the table, did not understand or appreciate the woman’s new lease on life. Where her heart was open and filled to overflowing, Simon’s remained closed and empty, even after Jesus tried to impart to him the meaning of forgiveness with the parable  of the two people whose debts were forgiven.

Simon seemed to be bound up in his belief that he was above sin. He locked himself in his self-made prison of righteousness, his mean little rule-based world. He and the others reclining at the table with Jesus simply could not comprehend that the woman’s abundant love was the sign of her forgiveness, of her be-Lovedness.

“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” [LK 7:47]

Listen, forgiveness does not mean consequences magically disappear, they don’t. But forgiveness provides the generosity that a person needs to make amends. And from this freedom our love overflows.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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NOTE: Luke’s placement of this gospel between two important stories about rejecting or accepting God’s invitation, adds more layers to the lesson on Love and Forgiveness. The first story includes Jesus’ pointed commentary on the lack of faith and obtuseness of those in the crowd who refused the baptism of John and therefore “rejected the plan of God for themselves.” [LK 7:30]. Jesus’ words indicate that even John, whom he said was the Prophet of whom Scripture spoke, was not accepted as God’s prophet because he did not look the part. In this commentary, we know Jesus is also speaking about his own rejection by the Pharisees. In the second story, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus acknowledged that only some of his followers possessed the faith to accept and act on God’s plan, and these ones were the good soil out of which the sower’s seed would produce “fruit a hundredfold.” [LK 8:8]

Compassion: I Suffer With You

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Earlier this week I awoke to the news that an infant was born in an area hospital to a 31-year old Honduran woman infected with the Zika virus. The mother was visiting the United States at the time of her daughter’s birth, and the child was born with microcephaly, a severe fetal brain defect caused by the Zika virus. According to a report on abcnews.go.com “The infant is only the second baby suspected of being born in the U.S. with the Zika virus-related birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. Another baby was born with the condition in Hawaii earlier this year.”

How frightened that new mother must be. On the most fundamental level, the depth of her sorrow, and worry about her adequacy as a mother, and the sheer injustice of chance is more than I can comprehend. Through no fault of her own, she was bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito during her pregnancy. Because of this, her baby girl, like the thousands of other similarly afflicted infants born around the globe, and those yet to be born before this virus is eradicated, will never experience the fullness of their life’s flourishing.

The story of the Zika birth on U.S. soil flooded social media outlets. Armchair judges shared the news wildly, many adding their condemnation of the new mother and child for the entire world to see. I was not aware that so many people manage to remain alive with hearts made of stone.

“So now the American tax-payers have a new citizen requiring expensive, life-long care”

“This is total bullsh*t. She should have been put on a plane and sent right back to Honduras. You can bet she has no means to pay for this health care, so we the taxpayers will foot the bill.”

“It really sucks, I’m sure, to think that your pregnancy is effected by Zika, but it also sucks that someone comes to this country to give birth and milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in Healthcare services for your delivery and child when those who have been a taxpayer and a citizen isn’t getting that health care and being treated as a drain on the nation we’ve paid taxes to. Now this kid is a US citizen and can get a free ride on medical care, food, etc. We have got to change our laws, because people who are actual citizens are getting shafted.”

“So if you have a heathy heard of cattle would you bring in a cow knowing it had hoof and mouth disease? As simple as that. Wonder how much it will cost? They knew she had it!”

For some people, the value of life is “as simple as that.” The scale that weighs human worth is calibrated with the amount of taxes one pays into the system. Clearly, some people in our society think it is fine to abandon women and children who cannot support themselves. It is no exaggeration to observe how little we have progressed from the biblical culture in which it was acceptable for women who lacked male support to become destitute.

Am I judgmental? I admit I am. This whole way of thinking is excruciatingly painful to me. Still, I continue to hope in the inherent goodness of humankind.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that callous responses to the suffering of others are a learned behavior birthed from deep insecurities and the fear of losing one’s identity. I feel sorry for people who feel threatened or displaced by the needs of others and who find justification in their meanness and lack of kindness.

Still, we are all works in progress—myself included—and I believe hardened hearts can be softened, walls can be taken down, and layers of fear can be peeled away. It begins with the practice of suffering with one another: compassion.

Compassionate acts have the power to energize those whose lives are waning. Through our care and concern, God’s love for us is made known.

How often do we feel compelled to do unsolicited acts of kindness, empathy, and seek companionship, and friendship? Something as simple as a smile or a door held open for one who is suffering, and the seemingly random but thoughtful acts when one individual takes a moment to recognize another’s distress are examples of how God’s presence is revealed in human action.

Sometimes we are the dead who need resuscitating.

Luke’s Gospel story of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-17] provides us with a profound example of the life-giving power of compassion.

As Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following him neared the entrance to the city of Nain they passed a widow accompanying the body of her only son to his burial place outside the city walls.

In biblical times, a woman’s identity and survival depended on male support. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain’s life also ended; the funeral procession was her own. She had no place to call home, no financial support, no identity; she was no longer a contributing member of society.

Jesus was moved with pity by the sight. The painful loss of the woman’s beloved son, his companionship, his care and his love for her ceased, and the future she faced as a childless widow moved Jesus to save her life by restoring the life of her son.

The challenge of compassionate living is not the same as the clichéd “what would Jesus do?” although WWJD has led people to make more life-giving and peaceable choices in difficult situations.

Compassion is about allowing God’s presence to work in us, with us and through us. Another person’s compassion or tenderness towards us has the power to restore us to a more abundant life.

Our concern and empathy for the plight of another, like the Zika-stricken Honduran woman and her microcephalic infant daughter, has the power to transform her life and ours from one state of being to another, from future without hope to one that offers the promise of abundant life.

Compassion is about taking on the cloak of the Prophet, dying to our own needs and fears, and joining them to one another’s.

That’s the miracle of restoring life to one whose life is all but lost.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Why do some hear while others do not?

4th Sunday of Easter (C)

While preparing to write today’s reflection, I was struck for the seventh time this week (and the three-hundred-and sixty-fifth time in as many days) by the similarities between today’s church and the early church of the Acts of the Apostles. I am reminded of the theory of “God’s time”, which, for example, might say two-thousand and sixteen years is a nanosecond in God’s time.

Let’s try an experiment with today’s first reading from Acts 13. Enter the story with Paul and Barnabas as they go about their missionary activity. There they are, all fired up and filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking and urging and exciting the crowds with the story of Jesus. So compelling were they that the following week nearly everyone in the city came out to hear them preach. Naturally, not everyone was thrilled with Paul and Barnabas, their message about Jesus, or the throngs of people who came out to hear them, especially since they saw some of their neighbors in the crowd. They objected violently to the whole business and enlisted the help of their wealthy and powerful cohorts to force Paul and Barnabas out of the city. Undaunted, Paul and Barnabas seemed to shrug off the rejection and moved on to the next city to continue their mission.

Now, imagine that a Catholic man went to some small city near Rome and preached on a pivotal yet sparingly administered teaching of Jesus’. He excited and urged huge crowds of Catholics and people of goodwill into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching. So popular and charismatic was this person that the city was filled with people from every corner of the world who hungered to hear his refreshing and restorative words. Almost immediately, some residents became alarmed and objected not only to what they were hearing but to the type of people who it attracted. These opponents contradicted the man, disrespected his wisdom and encouraged their friends from all over the world to do the same. Still, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the man spoke boldly and continued to guide his opponents to a deeper understanding, but their hostility continued to grow. Undaunted, Pope Francis returned his attention to applying Jesus’ mercy wherever he went.

Which leads to today’s very brief gospel from John 10:27-30. Why do some people hear and others do not? If Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” [John 10:14] that would mean that there are sheep who don’t know his voice and therefore do not follow him.

Returning to the story of our fledgling church from the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that in every flock there are some who hear and some who do not.

Organized religion has to take the blame, on occasion, for drowning out the sound of Jesus’ voice. Even if someone desires to hear, human and religious constructs have the capacity to thwart even the most sincere seeker from reaching the level of consciousness that allows him or her to hear Jesus’ voice.

On the other hand, organized religion can take the credit for the deposit of faith from Scripture and Tradition, and the copious writings of the great Theologians which have created a vast bank of spiritual experience to help attune us to the sound of Jesus’ voice.

What religion and theology provide is an opening through which we can learn about God through the wisdom, experience and insights of others. But it is only an opening; our ability to hear is not limited by it. The many names for Jesus (the Word, Savior, Lamb of God, Morning Star, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and so on) provide an example of the various ways we can hear. If only we will listen.

I recently read that to ‘hear” Jesus’ voice—not only the universal truths of which he speaks, but Jesus’ voice—one must discern Jesus’ being, his BE-ing, grasp the nature of Jesus’ connection to God, and be able to name him, Son of God, for example.

This “hearing” is what defines the Christian profession of faith. To affirm Jesus as the I AM is to acknowledge that Jesus, the man, is one with God, not just an exceptionally enlightened Prophet with a profoundly rich prayer life and awesome leadership skills.

But there are many, many followers who love Jesus and want to emulate him, but who struggle with Jesus’ identity as the I AM. For many Christians, this is a cake walk. For others, it is difficult, mind-boggling, and perhaps will require a lifetime of following the Good Shepherd to grasp.

Can we avoid the gate and just climb over the fence to enter the fold?  Nope. But, would Jesus, who self-identified as the gate, stand in the way of a would-be follower? Does the gate close to one who lacks absolute certitude but desires to know Jesus? Does Jesus only know the sheep with perfect hearing?

Some would say yes, that this is what Jesus meant when he said “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:14]. But the gospels also tell us that Jesus preferred to hang out with the sinners, probably because they were the ones with the better hearing.

Jesus talked a lot about ears and what people should do with them, but only Mark’s gospel includes a story about Jesus restoring a person’s hearing. [Mark 7:31-37].  My sense is that there were many sheep following the Good Shepherd who hung on his every word but who would not have passed the above three-prong spiritual hearing test, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus also said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [John 10:16].

To put this verse in context, by “other sheep” Jesus was likely referring to the Gentiles, but, returning to our experiment at the start of this reflection we can see that the Gentiles were the ones to whom Paul and Barnabas redirected their missionary action, and that the one flock Pope Francis envisions will be identified by their emulation of Jesus’ mercy.

As for my defense of Pope Francis (who has perfect hearing, by the way), I don’t judge the sincerity of Christians who object to new understandings or expanded interpretations of church teachings and what it means to their practice of the faith, but when that objection seems to be the result of a failure to hear the voice of Jesus and it devolves into disrespect for our Pope, condemnation of others, and division within the church, I feel as if we have gone back to the days of Jesus, or even a few hundred years before since the Prophets also received the same fate.

Perhaps in the next nanosecond of God’s time, we will be able to hear.

Today’s readings can be found here.