Sunday June 16, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Exodus 19:2-6a) Reading II (Romans 5:6-11 )
Gospel (St. Matthew 9:36-10:8)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells His disciples to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He tells them, initially, that they are not to go into pagan territory; but rather, He tells us that He came to call those who were lost. He looked at the crowds of people, we are told, and He had pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. If we look around our society today, there are many lost sheep. There are many people who have been baptized into Jesus Christ and have never really known the Lord. There are many who have known the Lord and have fallen away from their faith. Perhaps the various scandals within the Church have led some away. Perhaps it is just the allurement of the world, all the worldliness, the materialism, and the money that have pulled them away from their faith in Christ. Those are the lost sheep. And while we must also recognize that there are many people who have never heard of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation first and foremost to our own family. Each one of us who is baptized into Christ is a child of God our Father. We have an obligation, then, to seek out the lost, to look for those who have fallen away from Christ, to reach out to them, and to invite them to come home.
As we know, in a regular family there are some who get to a certain age and, in essence, disown their family and walk away. The parents, however, never stop loving that child and never close the door to the child. The door is open; the child can come back anytime. It is the pride of the child, however, that does not allow him to come home because, after all, he made a decision and his arrogance is not going to allow him to turn around. At the same time, it is the prayers of those parents, their suffering, and their willingness to take their child back in - no matter what the child has done to them - it is that self-sacrificing kind of suffering that is going to bring that child home. It is no different for any of us. Perhaps there are a number of people here who had wandered away from their own faith. You might look back and ask yourself, "What is it that brought me back? How is it that I'm here today? For how long I was away from the Church!" Somebody was praying for you. You may not even know who it is, but somebody was praying and offering sacrifice so that you would come back to the Lord.
Well, this is exactly what we see in the second reading today. Saint Paul tells us that it is unthinkable that anyone would die for someone who is unrighteousness, even though for someone who is a good person, maybe, maybe somebody would die. But while we were yet sinners - while we were enemies with God - the Lord came into this world, sent by His Father, for the sole purpose of dying for us: ungodly persons, unrighteous persons, and sinful persons. God our Father never stopped loving His children. He has called us, as we heard in the first reading, to be a special people, to be a nation of priests, a kingdom, a holy nation. That is what He called the people of Israel to.
But for each one of us who is baptized into Jesus Christ, that statement is even exponentially greater for us because we are members of the Priest, who is Jesus Christ, we are members of the Kingdom, the one Jesus talked about when He said, "As you go, tell the people that the kingdom of heaven is at hand." What do you think you have been initiated into but the kingdom of heaven? You are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. That is what you are to bring out into the world. And it is precisely that message of the love of God and of the dignity of His people that we must bring to those who do not know the love of God, who do not know their own dignity, and who have walked away from Jesus Christ.
There are many who have gone out into the world and tried it all. I found it interesting when I was in the seminary to listen to the stories of the men who were there. There were very few who were doing things the way it was done fifty years ago; that is, there were very few men in the seminary who entered right after college and continued on and were ordained when they were twenty-six years old. But rather, the majority of the men were in their late thirties, and some in their early forties or fifties. They had been out trying various careers. They had looked at a number of different things and they found it all to be empty. They did well in their various professions, but their heart was still longing for something more. Finally, they decided that maybe they needed to look to the Lord rather than looking to their own interests out in the world. It was only in that that they found their fulfillment.
The same is going to be true of any of us - not only in our vocations, but even in our day to day lives. Sometimes what happens is that with our vocations we will at least turn to the Lord and ask what it is that He wants - although for most people that is not even a question that they ask, tragically; they just assume that they know what God wants and rush off into a vocation which may not have been God's Will for them. But even if we have done that, even if we have sought the Lord's Will for us as we prayed about our vocation, once we enter upon that vocation we very easily forget to ask the Lord, "What do You want me to do today within this vocation to which You have called me?"
We need to pray, but we also need to understand that if we are going to ask the Lord, He may ask us to do some things that we do not really want to do. After all, He has called us to be a nation of priests and the nature of priesthood is sacrifice; and so, as all of you who are married know, there is no shortage of opportunity for sacrifice. You are to sacrifice yourself for one other person to whom you are married; you are to sacrifice yourself for your children; everything is about dying to self so you can live for another so that they will have life.
Look at what Jesus did. He came into this world and He poured everything out in sacrifice for us. He died so that we could live. The problem is, as Saint Paul makes clear in that second reading, there are lots of people who do not really accept that. He is having to say to these people that if when we were still enemies with God, He sent His Son, how much more now can we have confidence that we are reconciled with Him. If a child who has wandered away from home still knows that the door is open and will merely humble himself to go back home, he knows that his parents will accept him back. How much more for us, when it comes to God our Father, do we have the confidence, because of the death and now the very life of Jesus Christ into which we have all been baptized, that the door is open.
And for those of us who have accepted God's call, we now need to bring that out to those who have wandered away from it or who have rejected it. We need to be the ones to go out into the world and remind the people that they are members of the kingdom of God, that they are called to be holy, that they are called to a self-sacrificing kind of life, not a self-indulgent life that the world is offering. They are out there lying around like sheep without a shepherd because they do not know Jesus Christ. Like those men that I spoke of in the seminary, these people are looking all over the place for fulfillment, for happiness, for joy - of whatever kind. We all know how it is. It does not work; it is all empty. Everything that is offered out there is empty; it never will fulfill. Yet we keep trying: "If this one doesn't work, let's try something else and something more and even more beyond that." There is only one place where these people will find fulfillment and that is in Jesus Christ. It is with Him alone that they are going to find the fulfillment. Only with Him will they find what their hearts are desiring. What they are out there wandering around looking for they have already walked away from.
They do not know the Shepherd of their souls, but you do. The Lord is asking you now to work with Him, to be a holy person, and to be able to accept the priesthood to which He has called you, the baptismal priesthood of all the faithful, and to be able to exercise that priesthood by sacrificing yourself for the sake of others - starting with your own family. If anyone in your family has wandered away, pray for them, fast for them, offer sacrifice for them, but also for the others around you. How many in the workplace will brag about the fact that they used to be Catholic, how many in your neighborhood, how many acquaintances; whomever it may be, it does not matter. Are you willing to stand up and allow them to know that you believe in Jesus Christ and that you are a Catholic? Invite them to return. That is what the majority of them need. The devil has them so wrapped up that, in their pride, they cannot come back; but the interesting thing is that, for the majority of them, all it will take is one single invitation to bring them back. That could be you, if you are willing to reach out to them, if you are willing to invite them to come back. All you need to do is exercise your baptismal priesthood and reach out to others and show them the true Shepherd and the one Church that He founded. They will need to make that act of faith. They will need to open their hearts. But the Lord is asking each one of us, who has already said yes to Him, to now go to a deeper level, to reach out to those who have wandered away, to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The Church is the new Israel and there is no shortage of lost sheep. The shortage, the Lord told us, is with the laborers. And that does not simply mean those who will be ordained as priests; it means those who are willing to do the work of Christ. It means all of us, whether it is those who have the baptismal priesthood or those who have the sacramental priesthood; it does not matter. There is a huge shortage of laborers. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Augustine, even back in the fourth century, were talking about how many priests there were and how many bishops, but how few shepherds, how few laborers, there were in God's vineyard. The same can be said for all of us - not just among the priests and the bishops, but among all the people of God. How few are actually laboring to do the work of the Lord. How many of us are willing to take up that challenge that Our Lord gives to us and go out and seek the lost and bring back to the one fold all of the lost sheep of the house of Israel? It requires humility. It requires great love, profound charity, and a zeal for souls. Are we willing to do that?
Look at Our Lord there in the Blessed Sacrament and look at Him on the Cross. Recognize that He has called you, that He died for you, that you have been reconciled to God through His death and now you have the promise of eternal life. Now you can ask yourself, "Do I want to be in Heaven all by myself? Do I want to be in Heaven with only a handful? Or do I want, for all of those other people that Jesus died for, that they too would be able to share in the fullness of the glory that He is offering to all of us? A person of charity, a self-sacrificing person who will live their call to the baptismal priesthood, is going to have a desire for souls, and will want to bring Jesus to as many people as can be so that they too will be able to share in the glory that He offers to all of us. He died for them and they need to know that. It may be that the only way they are going to know that is if one person is willing to remind them of that. That one person might be you.
So look to the Shepherd of your soul and then listen to what He says. "The harvest is great but the laborers are few; pray to the harvest Master to send laborers into the field." Are you willing to be one of those laborers for Christ, to go out into the mission field? Which does not mean that you have to go to any missionary place, this country has become missionary. Just go to work; go to the grocery store; walk out your front door - it's mission territory. Are you willing to stand up and be counted for Christ? Are you willing to live your faith in Jesus Christ? Are you willing to bring that faith to others, to witness to Christ with your life and perhaps even with your words? That is what Our Lord is asking of all of us: to go first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and to stand up and say yes to our heavenly Father that we will be counted among those laborers in His harvest.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.