Fifth Sunday of Easter

Apr 28, 2024

The preacher named Casey in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath at one point says a profound thing in rather countryfied words:

Tain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus.  But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff.  Nighttime I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars; morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d pray like I’d always done.  On’y I couldn’t figure what I was prayin’ to or for.  There was the hills, and there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more.  We was one thing.  An’ that one thing was holy….

Casey here is testifying to a reality that many people experience, thankfully, and yet many others fail to ever know:  the ability to unify with, to come into union with, to become one with realities outside ourselves.  This can happen with divine realities, and with human realities, and with material realities.  We can go through life pretending that we are isolated, acting as if we have no obligations to God, or to the earth, or to other people.  But this is only pretending, and we are only fooling ourselves.  The alert and mature and integrated human being comes to a gradually clearer realization and understanding that we are related and interconnected in many different ways, and at many different levels.

John Donne, the great preacher of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral in the 17th century, developed this truth very eloquently.  Many people know one line of this sermon from hundreds of years ago.  It is the question asked when the funeral bell is heard: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  Ernest Hemingway chose these words, “For whom the bell tolls” as the title of his famous novel.  And Martin Luther King often quoted “no man is an island”.  Here are some parts of John Donne’s eloquent meditation on the unity of God’s children with which you may not be familiar:

When (the Church) baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engrafted into that body whereof I am a member.  And when (the Church) buries a human being, that action concerns me: (the human family) is of one author, and is one volume; when one person dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated.  God employs several translators.  Some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every transition, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another… No human being is an island entirely of itself; every person is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main(land); if a clod (of dirt) be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… Anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in (the human family).  And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Whether we refer to the words of the gospel today, where Jesus says so plainly “I am the vine, you are the branches”, or the words of the second reading, where the author pleads, “Children, let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth”—the possibility of relationship, of love, of unity, of oneness is the main teaching.  And this teaching stands in direct opposition to so much of what finds its way into our own hearts from our culture in terms of alienation, and hatred, and prejudice, and selfishness. 

Whenever we allow isolation, or hatred, or selfishness, or prejudice to reside in our hearts, or to be evidenced in our words and actions, we are in clear violation of this teaching—and it doesn’t matter what age we are!

  • Saying “that’s my toy—you can’t play with it!” convicts us;
  • Picking on someone because they aren’t “cool” or “dope” in some way convicts us;
  • Saying stereotypical things about immigrants or people of another race, religion, gender or nationality convicts us;
  • Wanting the church community to be there when we need something, but ignoring it otherwise, convicts us;
  • Not being attentive to our personal ecological impact on our planet convicts us;
  • Not stopping to help someone in trouble convicts us

All of these, and these are just a few examples, indicate our ability and tendency to remain sometimes in isolation, and selfishness, and prejudice, and hatred.

Jesus, on the other hand, invites us in the gospel to remain in him.  “Remain in me, as I remain in you”.  Eight times in this short passage the word “remain” is repeated.  He is inviting us into union with him.  And through his teaching, inviting us into deeper unity with one another and with the earth.  One description of God is “Trinity”—Father, Son, and Spirit.  This very description of God is inter-relational:  three persons in one God.  Each one of us who believes is called into this inter-relational life of God.  This means that, in faith, one comes to understand that reality is no longer an individual affair; rather our deepest and fondest dreams are realized in the process of mutual self-giving.

Many children are receiving their First Eucharist in the next few weeks (some at this Mass).  In this sacred action, which they will repeat week after week in the future, they are being taught this same important lesson.  This is why we share in the Eucharist on a regular basis—to remind ourselves repeatedly that we are not islands, but that we are interconnected, we are “in communion” with God and with one another.  Sharing in the Eucharist is a weekly challenge to keep our living on track, a nudge that we all need because we are human… and we sometimes forget or become distracted.  It is the divine reminder of what life is all about (and we are grateful to welcome these children into this ritual action today).

Jesus taught continuously about a Kingdom to come—a kingdom of peace and justice, a kingdom where all people are one, a kingdom where the earth is reverenced as holy, a kingdom where God is acknowledged as more important than anything else, a kingdom where there is no pain, and no fear, and no hatred, and no alienation, no selfishness, and no evil.     That kingdom was breaking into our world through his words and actions, and continues to break into our world through all those who take Jesus and his kingdom seriously. 

Each one of us either furthers the coming of that kingdom… or hinders it.  (These children who are receiving their First Communion / This child who is being baptized) will either learn from their home life and their church community life to become part of that evolving reality of the kingdom… or they won’t.  Each one of us makes that decision each moment of each day.  And the Eucharist we share today invites us more deeply into that reality, into that vision, and into that hope.  As we move deeper into that reality, we can say with the preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath: “We wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.”

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