Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vulnerability and the Christian Life: A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Vulnerability and the Christian Life
April 26, 2015

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year B

Vulnerability. Even the very mention of the word makes us a little uneasy, doesn’t it? We spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid even the semblance of vulnerability. We tell ourselves that to be vulnerable is to be weak, defenseless, and unprepared…and in a world that can often be so cruel and uncertain, we want to be as invulnerable as possible. Home security systems, 401k’s, flood insurance – these and other things help us to feel safer…they allow us to build walls and safety nets around our lives to protect ourselves from the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future. Without these walls and nets, we’d be left exposed…we’d be left vulnerable. And we just can’t have that, can we?

Now don’t get me wrong, these things are good. It’s good for us to feel safe and secure. But what happens when our desire for safety and security trickles into our emotional and spiritual lives? What happens when we build walls around, not just our assets, but our hearts? Sometimes in an effort to protect what is clearly the most precious part of ourselves – our ability to love and to be loved – we build up these huge insurmountable barriers. The pain of getting hurt, the pain of being rejected, the pain of loving without being loved in return…these are some of the hardest emotions to deal with and sometimes even the slightest taste of them can propel us into the depths of misery and despair. Why would we subject ourselves to the possibility of such pain? It’s much easier to retreat into ourselves, to put on a fa├žade, and to keep our inmost self a secret from everyone and anyone. It’s funny because it’s precisely from our deep desire to love and to be loved that we, very safely and securely, keep love at a safe distance. We can’t be vulnerable, because when we’re vulnerable we’re bound to get hurt.

In our Gospel today, we encounter one of the most tender and profound images of our Lord: Christ the Good Shepherd. We picture Jesus gently strolling about a vast pasture, surrounded by countless little sheep and lambs, calling them by name and picking them up to carry them. There are some beautiful paintings that depict this image, and some beautiful songs that call it to mind. Obviously we know that this is all a metaphor – so what’s really going on with Christ the Good Shepherd? It’s surely a convenient image for us to share with others during some of the more difficult times of life – the death of a loved one, the onset of sickness, or some other kind of tragedy – because it’s comforting and reassuring, showing that Jesus deeply cares for and is with those who suffer. But I think that the image of Christ the Good Shepherd takes us beyond this. Think about it for a moment…Christ the Good Shepherd can only protect, and comfort, and care for His sheep because they are vulnerable. The self-proclaimed “strong” and “willful” sheep don’t need a shepherd, and so they venture off out of the pasture where sooner or later they discover that they are no match for the dangers of the wilderness. The happy sheep are the ones who know that, as sheep, they are weak and need more than what they can provide for themselves. They admit their vulnerability before each other and before their Shepherd, and in doing so live in tremendous freedom. Christ the Good Shepherd reveals to us one of the most important keys to living the Christian life well and to becoming holy: vulnerability.

Jesus turns everything on its head…Paradox is His game. He makes the first last and the last first. He makes the rich poor and the poor rich. He promises that life brings death and that death brings life. And He shows us, by His Death and Resurrection, that the strong are made weak and the weak are made strong. He calls us to tear down the false barriers around our hearts and to fight the urge within ourselves to be something that we’re not, because it’s only in recognizing who we really are, in utter honesty and with complete vulnerability, that Christ can be all for us.

We should ask ourselves right now: where do we stand with regards to this honesty and vulnerability? Are we honest with ourselves, with our family and friends, and with God about our weaknesses…or do we pretend that we are stronger and more put-together than we really are? Men, this is really where the ladies have a leg up on us, although we all fall into this. We are petrified of our weaknesses because we are convinced that others will reject us…we want to be loved, and affirmed, and looked-up to, and who can love someone so pathetic and weak as we know we really are? So we put on masks and build up walls, exaggerating about ourselves, convincing the world and eventually even ourselves that we are strong. But what happens when we do this? Things fall to pieces. Relationships crumble; husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and neighbors cannot maintain their relationships with each other when they’re built on dishonesty. True love demands honesty and vulnerability, which is why the good life, the Christian life, can never be built upon false pretenses

Today, Christ the Good Shepherd wants to let us all off the hook. He wants us to know that happiness does not come from being strong, or beautiful, or smart, or successful, or rich…it doesn’t come from having the perfect family history or the flawless marriage…it doesn’t come by never struggling with addiction or by never making mistakes…it doesn’t come by protecting ourselves from the threat of pain or the fear of rejection…and it certainly doesn’t come from trying to hide the truth about ourselves. Happiness comes from knowing and actually accepting that we are loved, fully and completely, by our God no matter how messed up, imperfect, and weak we are. Happiness comes from knowing that this love empowers us and strengthens us to love each other in the same way. Happiness comes from allowing ourselves to be loved just as we are, warts and all. And in Christ the Good Shepherd, this happiness translates into eternal salvation.

So, my friends, do you want to be saved? Do you want to inherit the kingdom of God? Then tear down your walls, become vulnerable and admit that you are wonderfully weak, let Christ show you how to love and how to be loved, and then lay down in the fresh beauty and freedom of His pasture.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

For the Love of Fish - A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday in Eastertide
April 19, 2015

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou

One of the things that has always made us Catholics stick out in our various communities has to be our love of fish. Meatless Fridays have, for centuries, paved the way for an appetizing alternative for us to indulge in…allowing us to give up our winged and hoofed friends for a surprisingly delicious finned one. And so we became well known, and sometimes even poked-fun-at, for our ability to turn a penitential practice into something rather enjoyable: the Holy Roman Catholic Fish Fry. I don’t think there’s a single Catholic Church in the United States that doesn’t have a fish fry sign stored away somewhere in its basement. Usually popping up sometime in Lent, the fish fry is a great way to unite the community and to bring in a little extra cash for the parish. I once saw a pretty funny cartoon that I think accurately sums up our fish-eater stereotype: in the background, there’s a big calendar with the word “Friday” in bold…and in the foreground there is a man: in one hand he is piously clasping his rosary, and in the other hand there’s a fish sandwich that he’s shoving into his mouth. At the bottom, the caption reads: “Catholics…they want to have their fish and eat it too.”

Our fascination with fish, however, didn’t begin with our need to substitute out steak and chicken on Fridays…it began in the earliest days of the Church. In a time when the followers of Christ were hunted out and killed for their beliefs, they had to devise a way to communicate with each other that wouldn’t draw attention to them. They took the benign and common symbol of a fish and adopted it as a symbol of Christ. The word fish in Greek is “ICHTHYS”, and the early Christians took the letters from this word to create an acronym: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. It didn’t take long for the word ichthys and the simple drawing of a fish to spread far and wide throughout persecuted Christendom. What made the fish an apt symbol for Christianity was not only that it was benign and common, but that it was also drenched in symbolism from the New Testament. When Christ called the first apostles, themselves fishermen, He told them that He would make them fishers of men. When the throng of thousands came to Him, He miraculously fed them with bread and fish. And after He had risen from the dead, as we hear in today’s Gospel, He shows his disciples that He is truly alive by eating, by feasting upon a piece of fish. The symbol of the fish was destined to become a part of who we are and how we express our faith.

As Catholics, it is so very important that we continue to steep ourselves and our families in the rich traditions and symbols that have been handed down to us. Christ our Lord, risen from the dead, reveals to His disciples in the Gospel today that new life in Him is an infleshed life. He invites His disciples to see His resurrected body, to touch it and to feel it, to show them that His glorified body, the very body that would ascend to the Father’s right hand and reign for all eternity, is a true human body…with bone, with blood, and with flesh. In the Incarnation, God took on flesh, and in the Resurrection, He raised it up. What is bodily, what is material, what is common has been redeemed by Christ and now in Christ becomes a vehicle that makes His presence known to us. The Sacraments of the Church are the infleshed means by which He gives us His true grace. Water, oil, bread and wine…these material, natural things of the earth take on a spiritual and supernatural reality because of the risen Christ. The sacramentals of the Church…holy water, rosaries, ashes, palms…they help us to continue infleshing this grace in our homes and in our lives. Our beautiful church buildings, our artwork, our vestments, our vessels, our music, our statues all help us to inflesh the unseen, but real glory of God. Our observances and practices…the Christmas crib, the Easter candle, the Epiphany chalk, the Stations of the Cross, the Divine Mercy chaplet, the Advent wreath, and even our Fish Fries all help us to inflesh and to celebrate what we profess.

As we find ourselves now in the midst of Eastertide, let us continue to bask in the glory of our Lord’s true and real infleshment. He is risen, He is alive, and He is forever infleshed. In the Gospels we’ll continue to hear of Christ’s glorious and fleshly manifestation of Himself to His disciples, and we ought to revel in and enjoy what the Resurrection of Christ in the flesh means for all of us who follow Him. What He has done for Himself, He will do also for us: He will raise our earthly bodies and glorify them like His own. This is the Mystery of Easter, and as Catholics, we are an Easter people. So in the joy of this reality, let us rededicate ourselves to the thorough infleshment of our faith in our lives. Let us go to Mass eagerly, receive the Sacraments frequently, and immerse ourselves in true devotion. Let us pray before meals, even in public, and wear our crosses and medals with great pride and deep love. Let us go to Midnight Mass and the Stations of the Cross. Let us bless our door posts with blessed chalk and read the lives of the saints. Let us make our homes true chapels of prayer and of warm hospitality. And with a smile on our faces and a chuckle in our mouths, let us go dutifully to the Fish Fry and say boldly: “We are fish-eaters and fishers of men. We are Catholic and we are proud to be so.”