The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Homily: Arizona Shepherds

I thought I'd share my homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19.

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34


Almost 20 years ago when our eldest daughter chose to attend Thomas Aquinas College in California, Diane and I decided to load up the station wagon and drive her there ourselves. We lived in Massachusetts at the time, so it was a bit of a drive.

I’d like to say it was a fun trip, but to be honest I can’t recall very much about it. Those countless hours of driving on interstate highways really aren’t very conducive to an appreciation of America’s natural beauty. After a while the prairies, the plains, the mountains, the wheat fields all tend to blur into a single hazy impression of a seemingly endless highway. I'm sure some of you have shared the experience.

But there was one event on that trip I’ll never forget. One afternoon, somewhere in Arizona, our car decided it had taken enough abuse and simply stopped. Unfortunately, at the time we were on an empty stretch of Interstate in the middle of the desert. I immediately did what every red-blooded American male does in such a situation. I opened the hood, stared blankly at the engine, and swore at it.

For some reason this had absolutely no effect on the car. Knowing my mechanical ability, my wife and daughter began praying for assistance. And by the time I’d exhausted my repertoire of expletives, their prayers were answered. (There's a message there, but that's another homily.)

Anyway, three teenage Navajos in an old pickup stopped on the dirt service road that paralleled the highway and asked if we needed assistance. They volunteered to drive to a service station a few miles down the road to get some help. But before they left, another car pulled over. The driver, also a Native American, but from Oklahoma, took one look under the hood and in about three minutes had the car running again. Obviously in a hurry, he drove off before I even had a chance to thank him. And then, no longer needed, the three young Navajos gave us a smile and a wave and sped off down the dirt road trailing a cloud of dust.

Since that day I've often thought of those four young men and how they took the time to stop and help this obviously befuddled white guy from Massachusetts. If our roles had been reversed, would I have stopped for them? As much as I hate to admit it, probably not. How easy it’d be to rationalize a decision to pass them by. I just don’t have the time to stop. I need to get to Phoenix by nightfall. I’m sure a state trooper will be along soon. And, you can't be too careful, can you? You never know who you'll run into. How easy to magnify our own needs and fears to ensure they outweigh the more obvious and immediate needs of others.

I recalled those four Native Americans when I read today's Gospel reading. How did it go? "He pitied them, for they were like a sheep without a shepherd..." Well, if anyone was ever a lost sheep, it was I that hot afternoon in Arizona.

In the Gospel we encounter the Apostles as they return to Jesus from their first mission. It was a mission of healing and teaching and preaching, and they were no doubt exhilarated by the experience. They had witnessed firsthand the power of God's Word, the power of Jesus' Name. But they were also hungry and exhausted, in need of rest, as well as physical and spiritual refreshment.

Jesus, too, needed a break from the crowds who constantly pressed in on him, demanding his attention. Can you picture the scene? Listen again to the words of the Gospel: "People were coming and going in great numbers, making it impossible for them to so much as eat." It must have been chaotic. To make matters worse, Jesus knew that his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been executed by Herod. This surely affected him deeply.

Yes, Jesus and the Apostles needed some time alone, a brief retreat from the world. As Mark tells us, "So Jesus and the Apostles went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place." But that’s not the way it worked out, is it? The crowd figured out where they were going and arrived before them -- a huge crowd, over 5,000 people.

Most of us would have been annoyed to have our plans disrupted that way. But not Jesus. Instead of telling them to go home, that He’d done enough for one day, He sees their need, places it above His own and that of the Apostles, and takes pity on them. For the crowd, too, needed that same physical and spiritual nourishment. Jesus provides food for their souls with His teaching, and food for their bodies with His miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes.

In doing this, Jesus sends us all a message. If there’s no rest for Him, there can be no rest for His followers either. For the Christian, the follower of Christ, the needs of others must always outweigh his or her own. By virtue of our baptism, we all received a calling. Like the Apostles we have all been sent into the world on a mission. Indeed, that’s the very meaning of the word "apostle": one who is sent out. And like Jesus, we all have a certain amount of shepherding to do.

This doesn't mean we are all called to work in the foreign missions. For most of us, our mission is much closer to home; actually, it begins right in our homes. Our children, for example, can be fed and clothed and cared for physically, but if they are not nourished spiritually, if they’re given no Christian direction, they will be lost and wander aimlessly through life without real purpose. How sad that so many people, the young and the not so young, people from nominally Christian homes, lead empty, self-centered lives devoted only to pleasure or the accumulation of material wealth. Is there no one to shepherd them?

Perhaps even worse, we see people throughout the world, many of them Christians, seemingly motivated only by national or ethnic hatred. Where are the shepherds in their lives?

In today's second reading, St. Paul tells us explicitly that through the sacrifice of Christ, all people are brought near to God in a covenant of brotherhood. Listen again to his words. "It is He who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart...reconciling both of us to God in one body through the cross which puts that enmity to death." Our mission extends beyond home and family. It extends to the workplace, to friendships, to those seemingly chance encounters with those in need.

In the first reading we heard Jeremiah tell of God's promise to send shepherds to His people, so they will no longer live in fear. It’s a promise fulfilled by the good news of the Gospel, with the arrival among us of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Son of the Living God. And Jesus calls on each of us to continue His work, to be shepherds of God's people. But being the Good Shepherd that Jesus wants each of us to be can be a hard line of business. But He has given us a roadmap with the path clearly marked. We’re asked only obey His commandments and to love -- to love Him with all our being and to love each other. If we do this, He’ll take care of the rest.

Loving God demands that we find a quiet spot in our lives where we can be alone with Him in prayer. Like Jesus and the Apostles, we sometimes need to refresh ourselves spiritually, to get away from the pressures that bear down on us, to listen to God's healing voice. If only we allow Jesus to make His home in our hearts, He will give us the strength we need to cope with the challenges of life and the courage we need to accept our calling.

Oh, and now the rest of the story…Our daughter, the one we drove to California on that trip…her first job after graduate school was as a teacher at a Mission School in Thoreau, New Mexico, teaching Navajo and Apache children. You see, God calls us to do His work in the lives of those we touch, even in the lives of the strangers we meet on Arizona highways.

God's peace...

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