A Serious Proposition
May 2, 2004
A young man was out with his date and snuggled up close to her. “I love you,” he said. “I need you. I cannot live without you.” The girl gently pushed him away and said, “Joe, let’s not go there. I’m not ready to get serious.” Joe responded, “Who’s serious?”
We live in a world where games are always being played with words, where people frequently say one thing and mean another. Whether we consider Washington or Madison Avenue, whether we examine our jobs or even our families, we do not take words at their face value. Therefore, it is inevitable that this doubt about sincerity would influence us when we hear the Word of God.
Each week we gather here and hear the Word of God, which tells us God loves us, God cares for us, God will never let us perish. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. Jesus uses the image of the shepherd and the sheep to emphasize the close, personal relationship that binds us to him. Just as the sheep can recognize the voice of the shepherd and follow him and trust themselves to his care, Jesus says that we stand in a close, personal relationship with him. He will give us life and protect us. Jesus’ words are clear. The question is, do we think that he is serious? Or do we hear them as a kind of religious jargon or a modified sales pitch that only partially applies to us? To hear them in that way would be a fatal mistake because the basis of all that we believe depends upon our acceptance of that personal relationship with Christ.
What it means to be a Christian or a Catholic is not simply that we show up for church on the week-end or engage in a number of pious devotions. It is not simply giving mental ascent to a series of theological truths. It is not that we accept John Paul II as our Pope or you accept me as your pastor. It is not even primarily about living a good moral life, because millions of people do exactly that without any religious conviction whatever. What it comes down to, what is at the heart of our religion is that we know that we are daughters and sons of God. We believe that we have a personal relationship with Christ. We trust that regardless of who we are or the mistakes we have made, God will remain faithful to us and protect us. We believe that Jesus knows the pitch of our voice and knowing everything about us, still freely chooses to love us and protect us.
Outside of that relationship, faith is simply a matter of words and religion a system of ideas. Words and ideas are not going to save us. Only love can save us. This is why we must be grounded in a relationship of love with Christ. We need the strength that flows from that love because we live in world where there are all kinds of threats. We face the threat of terrorism, the threat of illness, the threat of rejection or prejudice from others, the threat of addiction, of violence, of injustice. How do we expect to cope with the fears that these threats can destroy us? How do we expect to gain the strength by which we can oppose the evil in our world and work towards God’s Kingdom? How do we expect to remain optimistic and positive, believing that life is worth living?
Words and ideas can only bring us so far. It is only when we ground ourselves in God’s personal love for us, that we can find peace. It is only when we believe God has chosen us and can recognize the very sound of our voice that we can live in freedom.
Jesus’ words are clear. We belong to him. He knows our voice. He will always care and protect us. We need then, to stand in that personal relationship. We need to draw the strength that comes from Christ’s commitment to us. Jesus says, “I love you.” We need to believe that He is serious!
Hearing the Voice of Our Shepherd
April 25, 2010
An American was traveling in the Middle East. As he was driving through the countryside, he ran across two shepherds whose sheep had become intermingled as they drank from a brook. He watched as the two shepherds talked with one another, concluded their conversation then bid one another farewell and began to walk off in two different directions. As they did so, the one shepherd called out, “Mannah, mannah,” which in Arabic means, “follow me.” At the same time, the other shepherd called out the same words. The sheep lifted their heads and then divided precisely into two groups, each recognizing the voice of their shepherd.
Jesus uses this shepherding image in today’s gospel to describe his relationship with us. If he is the shepherd, then we must be the ones who recognize his voice and follow him. But what does it mean to recognize the voice of Jesus? There is more than poetry here. Christians believe that at times in our life Christ speaks to us, calls to us, asks us to do something quite specific. What Christ asks us to do can be both dramatic and life changing.
Here is an example: It is the example of the Salwen family, a suburban family from Atlanta. A number of years ago Kevin, the father, was driving with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, through the downtown section of the city. They stopped at a traffic light. Hannah, looking out of the window, saw a man on the sidewalk holding a sign: “Homeless, please help!” At the same time she saw a man in a luxurious Mercedes waiting with them at the traffic light. She said to her father, “You know dad, if that man in the Mercedes had a little less nice a car, the man on the sidewalk could have a meal.” Kevin thought for a moment about his daughter’s comment and then said, “You know Hannah, if we had a little less nice a car, that man could have a meal.”
That interchange between father and daughter set the Salwen family on a spiritual journey, a journey that they have recounted in their book, The Power of Half. It is called The Power of Half because after a considerable number of months of family discussion, the Salwens decided that they did not need as big a house. They agreed to sell their house and give half of the proceeds away. Now they had a big house, six thousand square feet, and the market was better for housing in those days. They down sized and were able to give $800,000 to a hunger effort in the African country of Ghana.
Why half? Kevin Salwen would say that half is measurable. So many times we run into a situation of real need and we say to ourselves, “I should do something.” But “something” is vague, and vagueness means that often we often end up doing nothing at all. But half is a precise metric. It is a standard that can push us into action. The other advantage of half is that it is not connected to size. It does not have to be half of your house like it was for the Salwens. It could be half of a pay check or half of an evening out or half of an unexpected gift. What was important for the Salwens was their conclusion that Christ was asking them to do something. By doing it, they were indicating that they belonged to the good shepherd.
Now, I share this example with you, not because I am recommending that you give half of something away—although if you decide to do that it could be wonderful. I only want to offer a concrete example of someone who heard the voice of Christ speaking in the circumstances of their own life and chose to follow it. If you and I have a real relationship with Jesus, we should not be surprised if occasionally Christ asks us to do something. It could be giving money to the poor. It might be reconciling with an enemy. It might be spending more time with the family, seeking out counseling, or entering a specific career.
Christ can speak to us in many ways. But if we come to church every Sunday, if we pray, if we call ourselves Christians and we never hear Christ asking us to do anything, something is wrong. And it is unlikely that we hear nothing because Christ is not speaking. It is much more likely that we are not listening. Not listening is a serious flaw, because if Christ is truly our shepherd, he is calling. So the important question for each of us here today is what is Christ calling me to do? What is Christ asking me to do? It is a question that is essential to our relationship, because we cannot follow him if we do not recognize his voice.