Back to the Meadow – Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mountain Meadow

Today’s readings form a beautiful progression:
In the first reading God makes a promise.
The responsorial psalm responds to that promise.
The Gospel shows the fulfillment of the promise.
And all three center on the figure of the shepherd.

First, God promises.
During the time of the prophet Jeremiah,
the people of God were scattered.
They were beaten down.
The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem,
and had ultimately destroyed the Temple.
The chosen people are in exile.
The kings of Israel, who were supposed to shepherd the people,
have given in to power, cowardice, and greed.

“Woe to the shepherds,” says Jeremiah.
“You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them…”

But God cares, says Jeremiah.
“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow.”

Isn’t that a perfect image for summertime?
We might imagine a mountain meadow,
green grass, a cool breeze, the blue sky.
The meadow is empty,
but soon people begin to trickle in one by one or two by two,
as the shepherd brings them back.
They meet, shake hands or hug. It’s like a big family reunion.
Slowly the meadow fills with people.

This is God’s promise:
to gather everyone together:
“None shall be missing,” he says.

So this is the promise:
a shepherd who gathers.

And after the promise comes the responsorial psalm,
our response to what we have heard.
We just sang together,
“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

This is the most beloved psalm in scripture, and for good reason.
The psalmist has it right. The psalmist knows God, trusts God.
“God gives me repose.” “God refreshes my soul.”
“God guides me.” “I fear no evil.”
This is a psalm of trust.

Our response to God’s word from Jeremiah is to trust in the promise.
God will send a shepherd to bring us to the meadow,
to gather us together and give us rest,
to guide us, to take away our fears.

What am I most stressed out about today?
Where do I need guidance?
What do I fear?
Where am I falling apart?

When we are scattered, the shepherd will gather.
God will bring us to verdant pastures.
Not only will the shepherd lead us to rest,
but he will also refresh our souls.

And God will do something more.
The second part of the psalm describes a God who nourishes.
“You spread the table before me in sight of my foes.”
The shepherd will not only guide and gather, but also feed his people.

In that meadow that we’ve been imagining
there will be large banquet tables.
The people will feast as they have never feasted before.
The cups will overflow.

God will do this. He has promised.
Our response is to believe it, to accept it, and to proclaim it out loud.
“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

How can we believe in this? How can we trust this?
How can we know?
Because it has already happened.
The promise has been fulfilled
and is being fulfilled here today.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.
The shepherd God promised has already come.
Jesus sees the vast crowd in today’s gospel
and his heart moves with pity.
He doesn’t send them away.
Jesus doesn’t scatter.
He gathers.
He preaches peace to those who were far off
and peace to those who are near.
Jesus goes among prostitutes and tax collectors.
He eats with sinners.
Jesus seeks out the lost so that “none shall be missing.”
He leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one.

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow.”

The meadow is here, in this community of believers.
Here, we find repose.
He leads us here, beside the restful waters of baptism.
He refreshes our souls
in the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing.
We walk in dark valleys,
but here in this community
he is at our side, so we fear no evil.

And here at this altar
he spreads the table of the Eucharist.
Jesus our shepherd does more than prepare the banquet.
He offers his body and blood as life-giving food.
He gathers us around this table so that we can be nourished.

Jesus is the shepherd we have been promised.

But if the promise has been fulfilled,
then why do we still want?
Why are we still so restless?
Why don’t we feel more refreshed?
Why do we still fear evil?

That is a question each of us must ask ourselves individually.
That is a question to meditate on, to pray about.

There are six verses in Psalm 23.
One for each day of the week, Monday through Saturday.

On Monday we could take verse one,
“The Lord is my shepherd,
there is nothing I shall want,”
and think about that for a while.
Do I want God to be my shepherd?
Or would I rather be the master of my fate,
the captain of my soul?
It feels kind of insulting to be thought of as a sheep.
Why do I feel that way?
And there are lots of things that I want.
Why do I want so many things?
We could spend five minutes or so thinking about that little verse.

Then we could talk to Jesus about it, asking him questions,
for about a minute.
Jesus, if I let you shepherd me, what would happen?
Would I lose my freedom? Would I be happier?
Jesus, I want to be guided by you, but I get so distracted.
Can you help me focus more on you?
I have lots of wants: I want a new job, I want friends,
I want help with this particular problem.
We can just speak to Jesus as to a friend,
no longer than a minute.

And then, we can simply rest in His presence.
We can take about five minutes and let Jesus respond to us,
listening in the silence for anything He might have to offer.

On Tuesday, verse two:
“In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me.”

Then on Wednesday:
“He refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths.”

It takes less than fifteen minutes to do this each day,
in the morning or in the evening,
or maybe on our lunch break.
We can open up the Bible,
or pull up Psalm 23
on our computers, smart phones, or tablets.

And then read the verse slowly,
think about it for five minutes,
speak to Jesus for one minute,
listen for five minutes.
One verse for each day of the week.

And by the end of the week
we may be surprised by what we encounter.

If we start on Monday and end on Saturday,
we will reach the end of Psalm 23,
and hear God’s promise to us one more time,
a promise that has already been fulfilled in Jesus,
and one to which we hope to respond
with full confidence and trust just
so we can say, just as the psalmist did:

“Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.”

The Message of the Sea – Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rembrandt - Christ Calming Storm

I love a good historical novel about ships and sailing,
especially stories set in the Napoleonic era,
when England and France battled on the high seas.
But, though my mom and dad were both in the Navy,
I’m not much of a sailor myself.

The first and only time I sailed on the ocean
was twenty-five years ago, when Brenda and I took the ferry
from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia,
on our honeymoon.
For a short period of time—only about 15 or 20 minutes—
land was out of sight,
and we were completely surrounded by water in all directions.
I have to admit, I’m glad it was only for that short time.
As much as I love reading stories about ships at sea,
I was nervous being on this ship
in the middle of the great blue ocean.
When you’re at sea you’re at the whim
of the the waves and and wind.

For Christians in the first century,
the sea was even more frightening.
Those were the days before cruise ships,
before sonar, before electric spotlights, or satellite navigation.

The image of the sea runs through the readings of today’s liturgy.
God asks Job, “Who shut within doors
the sea?”
In the responsorial psalm God raises up a storm on the sea
and then calms it.
And in the gospel we have the dramatic scene
of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

God is using the sea to speak to us today.

In the gospel, Mark refers to the “Sea of Galilee,”
but it’s really just a lake,
only about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide.
It’s not much bigger than Lake Coeur D’Alene.
It’s also known as Lake Gennesaret or Lake Kinneret.
But Mark calls it a sea,
to suggest images of chaotic power,
of sea monsters, of evil.

The sea is a place of mystery,
of powerful forces hidden below the surface.
It is something to be feared,
a mysterious depth that no one but God can control.

It is at the shore of this fearful depth,
as evening descends,
that Jesus says, “Let us cross to the other side.”
He says the same thing to us today.
“Come with me.
Get into my boat and let’s cross this sea together.”

So the disciples get into the boat with Jesus
and begin making their way across the sea,
when suddenly a violent storm comes up.

There’s a powerful painting of this scene by Rembrandt.
In his painting the front of the boat is high in the air,
lifted by dark waves that crash over the side.
Inside the boat, the disciples are each doing different things.
One is trying to climb up onto the mast,
taking things into his own hands.
Another is in the back of the boat with his hand on his forehead
getting sick into the sea.
One is just staring out at the water in panic as if to say,
“What is happening?”
And a couple of the disciples are staring angrily at Jesus
who is very calm in the back of the boat.

Mark tells this event
to a church that was facing storms of its own.
It was facing persecutions,
and doubts about whether Christ would return.
We, too, encounter violent storms
as we sail on the sea of our lives.
Many things in the world disturb us,
shake our faith, weaken our confidence in God.
We have only to pick up a newspaper, turn on the evening news,
or scan the latest headlines
to see that life is turbulent.
And the trials of daily life, both great and small,
crash over the side of our tiny fishing boat.

Our little boats, the boats of our lives,
are tossed and turned as the waves pour in.

If we were to look closely at Rembrandt’s painting,
we would notice that there are actually thirteen people
in the boat with Jesus.
Jesus is there with his twelve disciples,
but there is an extra person.
Rembrandt painted himself into the scene.
We can do the same
and imagine ourselves in the boat on the stormy sea of Galilee.

All around us are the wild forces of nature:
the darkened sky, the wild wind, the heaving sea.
All around us are the wild forces of our lives:
violence and prejudice;
illness and poverty;
stress and self-doubt
What waves are crashing in on us today?

Today we bring the storms of our life into the gospel.
We find ourselves with the disciples
in the tiny fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.
Which of the disciples do I most identify with?
Am I trying to climb the mast of the ship,
trying to take things into my own hands?
Or am I just barely hanging on,
head in hands at the end of the boat, getting sick into the sea?
Am I just staring out at the waves,
not knowing how to act, not knowing what to do,
paralyzed?
Or am I looking angrily at Jesus yelling, “Why aren’t you awake?”

We all react to the storms of our lives in different ways.

And there, at the rear of the boat,
resting quietly on a cushion,
is Jesus.
See him resting quietly, fully trusting in the Father.
Fully trusting in the one who made the sea,
in the one who harnessed the oceans.
He is calm, he is peaceful. The Prince of Peace.

And now the disciples wake him up and they say,
“Don’t you care about us?”
Jesus rises to his full height,
and speaking in the same manner as when he drives out demons,
he says to the storm,
“Quiet! Be still!”
He rebukes the wind just as he rebukes demons.
The disciples ask,
“Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
This is no ordinary person.
This is God present with us in the storms of our lives,
come to accompany us in the midst of our upheavals,
in the midst of our greatest fears,
come to be with us.
And this is God, who challenges us to have faith in him,
to remember who God is.
That is the message of Job,
that is the message of the gospel.
Not to forget who God is.

Faith doesn’t mean smooth sailing.
Faith means knowing who God is
and knowing who I am in relationship to God
and allowing that relationship to bring about peace in my heart,
to bring about calm.

And finally, on this Father’s Day weekend
there is a special message for fathers in today’s liturgy.

If you have one of the parish calendars,
you might have noticed the picture for this month of June.
It’s another painting of the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,
this time by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
It brings out something in the gospel
that might otherwise be forgotten:
in the midst of the violent storm
there are other boats on the Sea of Galilee,
other people following Jesus across the water.
“And other boats were with him,” Mark tells us.

Looking at the painting closely,
we see that the people in the other boats
are looking at Jesus and the apostles.
They are looking for leadership;
they are looking for guidance.
How are the apostles reacting to the storm?
Are they confident and trusting,
or are they fearful?

Jan Brueghel the Elder - Christ Calming Storm

That’s the same way that children look to their parents.
When life is chaotic and stressful,
when a family’s boat is tossed about on a stormy sea,
children look to their parents to know how to react.

On this Father’s Day weekend
we give thanks to all fathers and grandfathers
who have weathered the storms of life
by placing their boats in God’s hands.
Their example has shown us the way.

And we who are fathers
are challenged to do the same,
putting faith in God,
building our relationship with Christ each day.

Just as we spend time servicing and maintaining the boats
we take to the lake each summer weekend,
we are challenged to take the time
to service and maintain the boats
on which we sail the sea of life.

And then when the winds blow and the waves crash,
we will remember who God is,
and our faith will keep us and our families calm and unafraid.

Thanks to Soul Shepherding for inspiration and information on Rembrandt’s painting.

Into the Cloud: Homily for the Ascension

Cloud Computing

On this Solemnity of the Ascension,
the Scriptures describe Jesus as being lifted up into the cloud.
We hear a lot about “the cloud” these days.
We can put our documents in the cloud.
Or we can keep our pictures in the cloud.
We can even put our music and books in the cloud.

It’s really convenient having our music or all of our books
at our fingertips.
But for many of us,
switching to the cloud can be a difficult transition.
We’ve probably got file cabinets
full of folders that contain important legal documents.
Maybe we have boxes of CDs, or cassette tapes, or even records.
We’ve also got shelves full of photo albums or cases full of books.

Putting items like these in the cloud is a bit scary
and hard to get used to.
Where do they all go? Are they secure?
Plus, we like the idea of having the concrete items to hold on to.
We like the way they feel and to see them organized on a shelf.
There’s a security in being able
to physically flip through an album of pictures
or hold a book in our hands
rather than looking at them on a tablet or e-reader.

The disciples are facing a similar problem in the first reading today.
As they were looking on,
Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
Jesus has moved to “the cloud.”
He is no longer physically with his disciples on earth.
They stand there “looking intently at the sky” as he ascends to the cloud.
They would like him to stay on earth, in the flesh,
rather than vanish within the cloud.
Like those of us who would rather feel the pages of a paper book
or see our photos in a leather-bound album,
the disciples would rather be able to see Jesus,
to place a hand on his shoulder,
to speak directly to him.
And I suspect many of us feel the same way.
It’s hard to place our faith in a person we can’t see or hear or touch.

Maybe we would have liked it better if Jesus had not ascended,
but stayed on earth with us.
What if that would have happened instead?
What if Jesus had simply continued living on earth
for all these centuries?
Maybe he’d have continued living near Jerusalem
for a few decades more,
and then maybe he’d have gone on to Africa, or China.
After that he could have made his way through Russia
to Europe and then the Americas.
He could have traveled all over
and been seen by millions of people in the flesh.

But there would have been many more who could not have seen him.
Billions of people who lacked the money or the time
to travel to where Jesus was.
Even if Jesus was alive today
in this era of planes, trains, and automobiles,
even with Skype or FaceTime,
there would still be people who could not get to Jesus:
the poor, the homebound, those in war zones, or in prison.
And even if Jesus went to visit them, he couldn’t get to everybody.

And that’s where the cloud can help us understand.
When we keep our documents and photos and music and books
in the cloud,
they’re available to us everywhere:
on our desktop computers, our laptops, our tablets, our e-readers,
and even on our smart phones.
We can share them with others with the simple click of a button.
Though it seems like our documents, our pictures, our music, our books,
are nowhere,
they’re really everywhere.

In a similar way,
though it seems like Jesus is nowhere,
he is really everywhere.
All because he was lifted up to the cloud.

The cloud is an ancient image for the presence and glory of God.
For instance, when God called Moses up to Mt. Sinai
to receive the tablets of the law
a cloud covered the mountain for six days,
and then God called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

And on the Exodus journey,
God’s presence and glory among the chosen people
were seen in the pillar of cloud by day
and the pillar of fire by night.

Later, God instructed Moses to set up a tabernacle in the tent of meeting
and after Moses did all that he had been instructed to do,
a “cloud covered the tent of meeting,
and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”

And even in the gospels,
when Luke describes the Transfiguration,
the disciples see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah
conversing on the mountaintop
and then they see a cloud cast a shadow over them,
and from within the cloud they hear,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

A cloud is almost always mentioned when God makes his glory visible.

This is the cloud into which God lifts Jesus up.
Jesus in his humanity enters into the glory of God
so that everyone can be close to God forever.
Through our baptism in Christ, we, too, are close to God forever.
Because God wanted to come close to us,
he sent his Son to be one of us, to be a human being.
After Jesus’ suffering and death,
God raised him from the dead,
and brought him into the cloud of his presence and glory.
We who have been baptized
into Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection
are also baptized into Christ’s Ascension.
The more we live out our baptism, the closer we are to Christ,
the closer we are God.

When Jesus disappeared into the cloud,
he didn’t just dissolve into thin air.
He is still here with us,
but in a new way, a way no one had ever seen before.

Though at first it seems like Jesus is nowhere, he is really everywhere.
He left the world one day in order to be available
to all people throughout all time.
He can be encountered on every continent, in every city,
in the homes of both the poor and the wealthy,
by both the saint and the sinner,
at any time.

The documents, photos, music, and books
that are available everywhere once they enter the cloud
are a reminder to us that Jesus is available everywhere
since he entered the cloud of the Father’s glory.

Christ is here with us now.
He never leaves our side.
God loves us so much,
he is not content with simply being in one place at one time.
He is with us in all places, at all times.
That is something worth celebrating here at Mass!
That is something worth coming here to sing about!
That is something worth telling people about!

That’s why we hear in today’s gospel that after Jesus was taken up,
the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them.”

That’s what we’re being asked to do, too,
to be witnesses for Christ, to preach the gospel.

It’s something we’re already very good at.
We love telling people about things that are good for them, don’t we?
That’s why we post our favorite outfits to Pinterest.
Or share our favorite recipes on Facebook,
or our favorite music.
That’s why videos go viral and why we click the “Like” button so often.
Those are all ways of preaching, of being witnesses.
We preach all the time on social media,
we preach all the time by word of mouth.
We tell people about the deal we got at the store,
or our favorite places to eat.

What was the last thing I recommended to someone?
Did I tell them about a great movie I just watched?
Did I mention a book I just finished,
or a TV show I just binge watched on Netflix?

We know how to preach
because we do it all the time.

When was the last time I recommended a prayer I discovered?
When did I retweet something Pope Francis put on Twitter?
Have I told anyone about a retreat I made that really made a difference,
or a passage from scripture that I just can’t get out of my head?
What kind of music is playing on the car stereo
when I drive to Mass and back?
These are all opportunities to preach.

This is what Christ is asking us to do:
to be his witnesses;
to tell everyone the good news that He is with them,
that God loves them.

On this Ascension day we remember
that Christ was lifted up into the cloud
not to leave us,
but to be with us forever.

We may or may not ever become comfortable
with putting our documents, photographs, music, or books in the cloud.
But the next time we stream music to our phones,
or download an ebook, or share our photos online with friends,
we can remember that Jesus, too is with us no matter where we are.

And we can be witnesses of his presence to the people we love.