4th Sunday of Easter – C • May 8, 2022 at St. Luke’s

In seminary my classmates and I were blessed to be able to study in the Holy Land for a couple months. While there, we were taken a place where we got to have the experience of herding sheep. Specifically, we were given the task of moving a herd of about 40-50 sheep from one circle of stones to another circle of stones about 100 feet away. It ended up being complete chaos. Thirty-five seminarians simultaneously trying to move 40-50 sheep: we were all yelling, gesturing, gently trying to move them, and they had no idea what to do. Eventually we succeeded; no doubt the sheep had done the same thing many times before with other tourist groups and eventually figured out what we were trying to do.
 
But what was the problem here? Why were the poor sheep so confused and had so much trouble figuring out where to go? The problem was that they are used to listening to just one voice – the voice of their shepherd. In this situation, there wasn’t one single voice, there were many. It must have sounded like just a bunch of noise to them. And furthermore, we were all strangers to them. Even if just one of us had been speaking to them, they still would not have recognized the voice, because it wasn’t the voice of their shepherd.
 
Elsewhere in Scripture we hear how Jesus had pity on a crowd of people, because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” We might not like to hear it, but Scripture often compares human beings to sheep. Nowadays if we do this, we’re used to this being done in a pejorative way (“sheeple”, etc.). But like it or not, and whether we realize it or not, there are similarities. We are both social creatures by nature, and we all need guidance from time to time. Sheep like to congregate in groups and like to follow a shepherd because these are necessary for their own safety. A sheep on its own is in danger. And without a shepherd, they don’t necessarily know where to find pasture, shelter, and so on.
 
And on our own, we can often be in spiritual danger. When we are isolated, or when we isolate ourselves, all kinds of vices can fester. And of course, one of the basic human needs for human flourishing is social interaction. And we all need the guidance of others. We simply can’t figure out everything on our own. An infant is completely helpless on its own. But even as we get older and we become more independent, we still need the guidance and direction of others. Even if we were completely self-educated, learning about everything via books or the internet, someone wrote those books or created those websites. It is the same with our faith: we have all received the faith from someone else: parents, teachers, catechists, friends. Even if we had never had any faith and were raised without any faith and then one day just picked up a Bible, started to read, and then eventually became a Christian, everything in the Bible was of course written down by other human beings (with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of course).
 
And no matter how independent we might consider ourselves, no matter how much of a free-thinker, we all follow someone or something. We all do. We all adopt a way of life from someone else. It could be a very radical, uncommon way of life, but we’re still imitating someone else. We all adopt a set of ideas or principles or a worldview that comes from others. Usually we are most influenced by parents, family, friends, and peers, and more and more we are influenced by media: what we see on TV, on social media, in movies, etc.
 
So the point I’m trying to make here is that, whether we realize it or not, we all look for a shepherd, and that’s because we need one. That need for someone to follow is built into each one of us as human beings. And as Catholics, our shepherd – our true shepherd – is Jesus Christ. This Sunday is often called Good Shepherd Sunday because each year our Gospel reading is taken from John chapter 10, the “Good Shepherd Discourse”. And the other readings allude to this as well.
 
In the Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” So Jesus is our shepherd, but we can only truly call him our shepherd if we do two things: first, hear his voice, and second, follow him. So I think it’s a good idea to ask ourselves whether we can say we truly do these things. And there are of course challenges to doing both these things. One of the main challenges to hearing Jesus’ voice is that there is so much noise in our world, so much noise all around us all the time, that it can be very difficult to hear his voice. While it’s difficult to escape all of it all the time, I think it is possible to reduce the noise. But we have to be very intentional about doing that. It doesn’t just happen. We let ourselves be surrounded by lots of actual noise from all the media sources we now have: all the usual suspects of course. The internet took what was already a pretty fast-flowing river of information and turned it into a deluge, a constant torrent. We absorb so much news and entertainment and social media posts and on and on, it’s no wonder that we have a hard time hearing Jesus’ voice.
 
So it’s necessary, absolutely necessary, that we be intentional about reducing to a significant degree all the various media noise that we consume. And if you are a parent, you have the responsibility of reducing it for your children. If we as adults can’t control it, how can we expect our children to be able to control it? They have to be taught self-control when it comes to screens and devices and it really has to start at a very young age. And we adults have to model that behavior.
 
I think we also have to strive – and this is a really tough one – to be less busy. Always racing around, having a lengthy and never-ending to-do list takes up a lot of space in our heads and creates a lot of mental noise. We have to learn to say no sometimes (unless your pastor asks you to do something!).
 
Turning down the noise isn’t for the purpose of creating a void, it’s for the purpose of being able to hear the voice of Christ speaking in the silence of our hearts. So we also must carve out time for prayer in our day, and strive to be as consistent with our daily prayer time as possible. If we’re super busy and fill every possible moment with noise, it’s going to be difficult to quiet ourselves during that prayer time. Our brains are still going to be racing. So that’s why we should strive for less noise in our lives – to enhance our ability to listen to the Lord in prayer. And if in your prayer time you find yourself very distracted with everything you have to do that day, all kinds of worries and concerns, start by putting yourself in God’s loving presence and then just relate to him whatever is on your mind and in your heart. And then just put it into his hands and ask Him to hold onto it for the duration of your prayer time. It’s usually helpful to then read perhaps a few verses from Scripture or from a good spiritual book to give our prayer some direction, and then spend some time reflecting on what you’ve just read, how God might be speaking to you through it. And then finally, we ought to spend a few minutes of our prayer time just trying to be quiet in God’s presence. Over time, and the more we do it, the more likely we are to hear the voice of the Lord speaking in our hearts.
 
After hearing the Lord, we’re still not finished – if Jesus is truly our shepherd, we also have to follow him. We also have to act on His word. We have to put His word spoken in our hearts into practice in our day-to-day life. But just a word of caution about this: Jesus speaks to us most commonly through Scripture and His Church. Sometimes people make the claim that God told them to do this or that and use that to justify all kinds of behavior. But we can deceive ourselves and we can be deceived. Jesus speaks through his Church. We have to understand Scripture in light of the teachings of the Church, otherwise anyone can develop his or her own personal interpretation of Scripture, and we end up with all kinds of competing narratives – i.e. more noise. The Lord speaks to us through the teaching authority of the Church, the teachings that have been handed down to us through the ages.
 
Let us listen for the voice of the Lord in our hearts and in our lives. Let us let the Lord guide us. He doesn’t want us to be like the confused sheep that we tried to move from one circle to another, not knowing who to listen to or where to go. As Jesus tells us in our Gospel today, he wants to lead us somewhere: he wants to lead us through this life to eternal life. So let’s pay attention to his voice speaking in our hearts and follow Him where he desires to lead us.

3rd Sunday of Easter – C • May 1, 2022 at St. Luke’s

After Jesus’ Resurrection and before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples were completely shaken to the core: there was nothing in their lives – or in the lives of anyone else for that matter – that could have prepared them for what they were witnesses to. After three years living and travelling about with Jesus, he had died and then risen from the dead, and then was manifesting himself to them on different occasions, appearing to them without warning, entering locked rooms and so on. But in between these appearances, no doubt Peter and the other disciples felt somewhat at a loss as to what to do with themselves. So they returned to what they knew best, what they did before Jesus had come into their lives and changed everything: they decided to go fishing.
 
And yet, despite all their efforts throughout the night, despite all their skill, they didn’t succeed in catching anything. Until they saw Jesus, and listened to his command to cast their nets one more time. Then they hauled in an incredible catch, so big that their nets were full to bursting. Where had all those fish been hiding all night?
 
At the seminary I was one of the older guys in my class. Along with a few others, we were what was known as “late vocations.” Some people are called by the Lord to serve him at a young age and respond while still young. The average age of seminarians here in the U.S., after having gone up for years, is now dropping. And good for those who are called by the Lord and respond while still young.
 
While I might have been called at a young age, however, I certainly did not respond right away. Instead, I went my own way, looking for happiness wherever I might be able to find it, literally wandering around the world in my search for it. I was sailing around my own Sea of Galilee, dropping my nets again and again, hoping that eventually I would haul in a good catch – that I would find happiness and peace in the world on my terms. And like Peter and the disciples in our Gospel today, I pulled up empty nets again and again. Certainly I had some good times and great memories, lots of fun at times, and I give thanks to God for many of the wonderful experiences that I had, but on my own I was not able to find the peace and happiness that I was seeking. Those things kept eluding me.
 
I could say the same for my brother seminarians who, like me, were of a “certain age”, who had “experienced life” and had looked for happiness all over – in jobs, in possessions, in relationships, wherever – and, who, like me, reached a point in their lives when they realized they were not finding what they had been seeking. One of my classmates who is now a priest has said very candidly that, if he had continued to live the way he had been living, he thinks that now he would either be dead or in prison. Seeking happiness but not finding it.
 
And all the while, Jesus was patiently waiting for us on the shore. No doubt he was watching us sailing around and dropping our nets and pulling them up empty. And while he waited, he was preparing a meal for us. Until finally one day we caught sight of him. “Children, have you caught anything?”, he said. “Have you found what you have been looking for? Have you found peace and happiness out there? If not, listen to me. Listen to my words, and you will find the peace and the happiness that you have been searching for.”
 
Jesus says these words to each one of us. How many of us have wandered around in life, away from God, looking for peace and happiness where they could not be found? No, maybe you didn’t wander around geographically like me but you may have wandered nonetheless. Maybe you still feel like you are out to sea trying to haul in some fish. If you are, Jesus is waiting patiently on the shore. And he is preparing a meal for you. And the meal is going to be delicious (even if there is fish in it).
 
After breakfast, alone by the fire next to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and Peter have a conversation, in which Jesus asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” He gives Peter three opportunities to atone for each of the three times that he denied Jesus by the fire in the courtyard of the palace of the high priest in Jerusalem. Jesus gives each one of us the opportunity to atone for the times when we have denied him, whether by our words, our actions, or our thoughts. No matter how many times we have denied him, he gives us that opportunity to repent and be forgiven.
 
And then Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” He says those same words to us. It is not enough just to tell Jesus that we love him. It is not enough to eat the food that he gives us. We also have to follow him. Where might he be leading us? It is true, like Peter, sometimes it is to places that we might not want to go. Or rather, it might be to places that, in our previous life of wandering, we would not have wanted to go. But once we have said yes to Jesus, following him to those places becomes possible. Jesus called Peter to follow him all the way to the cross – Peter himself, according to the tradition that has been passed down to us – was crucified in Rome in 67 A.D. Jesus calls us too to follow him to places that before we would never have wanted to go. But when Peter was crucified, he was willing to die for Christ – the tradition even tells us that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same way as Jesus.
 
We may not know yet where Jesus is calling us to follow him. We do not know to what Cross we may be called. But wherever Jesus calls us to, we can have the confidence that he will give us the strength we need to follow him anywhere. Even to the places that before we could never have imagined. And that He will be with us every step of the way.
 
Jesus is waiting for us on the shore. Let’s stop sailing around aimlessly and go to him so that he can feed us. And then let us follow him to wherever he leads.

2nd Sunday of Easter – C • April 24, 2022 at St. Luke’s

Back in October 1938, less than a year before the beginning of World War II, a nun named Faustina died of tuberculosis at the age of 33 in a convent in Krakow, Poland. During her life, she had regular visions of Jesus who spoke to her of his Divine Mercy and urged her to spread devotion to his divine mercy. She communicated these words of Jesus to her bishop. She also warned him of the coming war which she said would be terrible. After her death and the beginning of the war, the bishop remembered her prediction about the war and permitted public devotion to an image of the Divine Mercy. However, because of the war and then the Soviet invasion and Communism, religious practice was often suppressed, and this prevented the spread of the devotion to the Divine Mercy. It wasn’t until 1978 under Pope St. John Paul II that the Vatican formally approved this devotion, and this 2nd Sunday of Easter has been declared Divine Mercy Sunday in accordance with Our Lord’s wishes as expressed to Sr. Faustina, who was canonized in 2000. The Lord also taught a prayer to St. Faustina which is called the Divine Mercy Chaplet. As its name suggests, it is a prayer asking the Lord for mercy for ourselves and for the whole world. And the world is very much in need of God’s mercy.
 
But fortunately, God is not stingy about giving us his mercy. He desires to share it with us. But he never forces himself on us either, so we shouldn’t hesitate to ask him for it. And on this 2nd Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, our readings give us reminders of God’s infinite mercy.
 
Throughout the Easter season, we hear from the Acts of the Apostles, in which is recounted the spread of the Church, the community of believers in the Risen Jesus, first in Jerusalem and then throughout the eastern Roman Empire. We hear how God sent his Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the feast of Pentecost. The fear that they had had is suddenly gone, and the apostles begin to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, doing what Jesus did during his time on earth, proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation, healing the sick, casting out demons, performing works of mercy. So in our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how word has begun to spread about the miracles performed by Peter and the other apostles, and just as in Jesus’ life, people bring “the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits” to them, so that even their shadow might fall upon them and they would be healed. Through the apostles, God is bringing about incredible things in the world. His fragile, little Church on earth is starting to grow, despite all the odds being against it.
 
And then in our Gospel reading, we are taken back to the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, when he suddenly appeared to the apostles. This was the first time he appeared to them as a group after his resurrection, and the first time he was with all of them since they had fled from him in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. But rather than scold them for running away that night, Jesus greets them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And then he continues the commissioning of his apostles which he had begun at the Last Supper by breathing on them and saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist, giving his Body and Blood to the apostles for the first time and telling them to do the same in remembrance of him. And now, after his resurrection, he institutes the great sacrament of God’s mercy, the sacrament of confession or reconciliation. Right here we have the scriptural basis for this sacrament. Jesus shares his Holy Spirit with his apostles and in doing so gives them the power to forgive sins.
 
Because he has already died on the Cross for us and for our salvation, he has obtained the forgiveness of sins for the human race, which we could never obtain on our own. And now he has given this power to forgive sins to his apostles. What a great sign of God’s mercy this is. Despite our sins, despite humanity’s lack of faithfulness, despite the lack of faithfulness of even his closest followers, God desires to forgive. He knows that we are weak. He knows that we have all been affected by original sin, and he desires to give us a remedy.
 
Again, this is not something we could ever achieve on our own. What could we possibly do to make up for our sins, or the sins of humanity? What good deed could we do? What could we give God to make up for them? As we have seen, none of the animal sacrifices made by the Jewish people throughout the centuries were able to bring about true forgiveness of sins, but rather acted only as a sign or a symbol. But now we have the real thing, because God has given it to us.
 
Sometimes we might fall into one or another camp, either not thinking we really do anything wrong, or maybe nothing that’s really “that bad”, and thinking that we don’t really need God’s mercy. Some might even object at times to hearing about things like sin and repentance – why focus on these things, they might ask. Or on the other hand, some might feel that they simply cannot be forgiven; they might wonder how God could possibly forgive them for what they’ve done, or maybe doubt that He would even want to. They might hear about God’s mercy but think that it doesn’t apply to them.
 
Neither one of these attitudes is correct. We are all in need of God’s mercy because none of us are perfect. If we don’t think we do anything wrong, we probably need to take a closer look. Sins like pride, jealousy, greed, and even hatred can manifest themselves in very subtle ways. If you have a spouse, just ask them if they think you’re perfect! I’m sure he or she can share something with you!
 
And if we are convinced that God can’t or won’t forgive us, we have to remind ourselves of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus’ suffering and death is greater than, yes, all the sins of the entire world. There is no sin that is greater than God’s mercy. We have to remind ourselves of what we heard in our Gospel today, how he gave his apostles the power to forgive sins. Don’t be discouraged by your sinfulness; certainly it is necessary to feel sorrow for one’s sins, but do not let that keep you away from the sacrament of reconciliation. God’s mercy is greater than our sins.
 
Let us never hesitate to turn to the Lord to ask for his mercy. Not only for ourselves, but for others, and for our entire world. Yes, God permits us to ask for mercy on behalf of others too. Our world is always in need of God’s mercy, and our age is no different from any other in that regard. And his mercy is a gift that He freely gives us, out of the abundance of his infinite love for us.