In my absence yesterday, Pastor Dick Dahl celebrated with the gathering community and shared this wonderfully challenging homily for all of us. Enjoy!–Pastor Kathy
A couple weeks ago I read a book entitled “The Art of Community.” The author, Charles Vogl, wrote, “Stories are the most powerful way we humans learn. Every community, like every person, is full of stories. Sharing certain stories deepens a community’s connections.
Today we listen to three stories. In the chapters from which two of today’s readings were taken, two stories are told. In one, just before the verses we heard read, Jesus cures a man who had been blind from birth. In the other from the Acts of the Apostles, in Jesus’ name Peter and John heal a man paralyzed from birth.
In both stories the common people marvel at what happened while the religious authorities see it as breaking the rules. In the scene described in John’s Gospel they were divided. Some said, “He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him?” Others countered, “These are not the words of one possessed; surely a demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?”
The story from Acts describe the religious leaders conferring with one another after the cure of the paralyzed man and saying, “What are we to do with these men? Everyone living in Jerusalem knows that a remarkable sign was done through them, and we cannot deny it. But so that it may not spread any further among the people, let us give them (that is Peter and John) a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in his name.”
The story from John’s Gospel goes on, however, with Jesus describing the difference between himself and the authorities. He identifies himself with the image of a shepherd. Most of us have not had much experience with shepherds. But Jesus, like other Jewish people of his time, were familiar with them, not only from their daily lives, but even from their religious literature. King David, a thousand years before Jesus was born, composed Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Jesus used this metaphor to describe how he differed from those who were only hired to guard the sheep but who did not own and cherish them. The hired person might run away when a dangerous animal approached to harm them, but the shepherd knows his sheep; he cares about them. The shepherd stays with the sheep in the midst of danger to protect them.
The Gospel story goes on, “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” So he went on, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” He went on further to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they shall hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christian community mulled over Jesus words. Consequently we have Luke, the author not only of one of the Gospels, but also of the Acts of the Apostles write the following, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
What are we to make of these stories? Is Jesus giving us a narrow and restrictive message? However, he also spoke of “other sheep not of this fold who shall also hear his voice so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. This gives an inclusive dimension to his message.
For years Christians, and Catholics in particular have been taught that outside the Church there is no salvation. As the Acts of the Apostles states, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
In today’s readings we heard how the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, had difficulty recognizing how God was acting not only in their time but in their very midst through the cures that Jesus and later Peter and John performed.
I suggest that those stories show us how we can, like the blind man, fail to see or understand God’s presence and action in our lives, until Jesus opens our eyes and our hearts for us. It is not easy for us to have our minds open from an interpretation we are accustomed to to a fuller meaning that is not fundamentally different, yet more inclusive in its scope.
We have a contemporary example in our third story from this past week. Pope Francis visited the Church of St. Paul of the Cross on the outskirts of Rome for a question and answer session with the children of the parish. A little five-year-old boy walked to the microphone, but started sobbing. The Pope gently called to him to come forward. Francis gently embraced the boy whose name was Emanuele. Francis encouraged the boy to whisper his question in the pope’s ear. Then they talked quietly to each other before Emanuele returned to his seat with the other children.
Francis then addressed the crowd and said Emanuele had given him permission to share their conversation. Emanuele was crying for his father who had recently died. The boy told Francis his father was an atheist but a good man who had all four of his children baptized. “Is Dad in heaven?” the boy asked the pope.
Francis said, “A boy that inherited the strength of his father also had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If this man was able to create children like this, it’s true he was a good man. That man did not have the gift of faith; he was not a believer. But he had his children baptized. He had a good heart.”
The pope said that God decides who goes to heaven, and that God has “the heart of a father.” He then asked the boys and girls in the audience if they thought God would abandon a father like Emanuele’s who was a good man. At first there was silence. The pope asked again, “Well, would he?” “No! the children shouted back.”
“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the pope said. “God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.”
Today’s stories challenge us to be open to recognize the presence and action of God in our lives. It may not be in ways or people we expect. To what extent may our expectations get in the way? To what extent does the way we are accustomed to thinking get challenged?
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
For Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Can you and I recognize him in the eyes and limbs of others, in ten thousand places? How many others know and respond to his voice by another name, in another culture, another religion, or without the image of religion at all?
One thing the Gospel story asserts is Jesus’ unfailing concern for each person, especially those who are in danger, needing protection, seeking help. Perhaps it is an undocumented worker or family among us. It may be people of a different race, a different religion, or no religion.
Please, Jesus, help us to see; cure us of blindness. Open our hearts so that we may hear and recognize your voice, that of the good shepherd who loves and cares for all his sheep, including those not of his fold, that we all may be one.
I end with a Prayer composed by Judy Cannato, the author of “Field of Compassion”:
Holy One, you have given us the gift of story in our lives, ways of understanding who we are, ways of making sense of our world, of finding meaning and knowing how to respond to all that happens in our lives. Please show us where our stories fall short or are too narrow, where they exclude rather than include, where they divide rather than unite. Help us to see where a story we live out of may go amiss of what is real, where it allows us to escape becoming whole, where it lets us live comfortably in fear. Fill us with your story, the story of unity and compassion and love. Fill us with images that energize us and give us hope and lead us to the fundamental truth that you have tried to teach us all along: we are all one. Amen.
After the homily, I noted that in 2003 Pope Francis gave a homily in which he reiterated the Christian belief that eternal salvation is attained through Jesus Christ. But he declared that all humans are created in the image of God, and that all have a duty to do good. The pope said this principle of doing good to others is the one that unites all of humanity, including atheists. “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” the pope said on that occasion.