In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, the Gospel reading for this Third Sunday after Trinity reminds me of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, at first glance, this would seem to be a strange association, for the Gospel tells us of a shepherd retrieving his lost sheep and of a woman finding her lost silver. The stories are dramatic, of course, as would be expected of any tale of lost treasure; but they end on a celebratory note. In hindsight, the celebration the shepherd and the woman share with their respective friends and neighbors, once they have retrieved what had been lost, sweeps aside the fear that they must have experienced while undertaking the search. We are left with the feeling that these stories are light, if not playful, since they end on such a positive note. There is no such connotation with the earthquake. As we Californians all know from personal experience, these great tumults in nature do eventually end, but there is generally no celebration in the immediate aftermath. Instead, there is stillness, as the hustle and bustle of normal life seems to have been frozen at a moment in time. There is darkness, as the electricity is knocked off. There is a mess of shattered glass that must be swept up from the floors, or perhaps there is a broken wall that must be pushed aside to break free from a wreckage site that moments earlier had been a home. There is nothing that helps us to forget the fear we had had to endure, and therefore the fear lingers in our memories of the event. We are left going forward not with a celebratory triumph, but with the sensibility etched into our minds that that earthquake had been a real doozy and that we had been fortunate to survive.
I recall that I had just finished reading a chapter in the novel, “The Once and Future King.” I was walking through my grandmother’s kitchen when the quake struck like something out of a dark fantasy. It was frightening, to be sure, as I grasped onto the open kitchen doorway, but it was also even then strangely surreal. We rode it out as best we could, and then started to pick up the debris as the late afternoon sun gave way to a night marked by rolling smoke clouds and distant embers. After awhile, the neighbors converged onto the quiet residential street in front of our homes. We all had an impromptu pow-wow that quickly turned into a tailgate party and bar-b-que on the driveway of the home across from ours. There must have been about a dozen families who showed up with steaks, hamburger meat, and beer, and soon enough the driveway party spread across the entire block. There was no electricity, and so stereo music gave way to an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. For the most part, the block party remained subdued, since the devastation unleashed by the quake could not be entirely forgotten. We mostly spoke in hushed and respectful tones, like we were inside of a church waiting for the bell to ring and the hymn to start. I sensed at the time that nobody was putting on any airs. Nobody was pretending to be better or different than whom they truly are. We were all just ourselves, too battle scarred perhaps for the nonsense, and this allowed for a kind of neighborliness I have never experienced since. For a few hours that long night, we were family to one another.
In a way, by choosing to come together as we did, we neighbors along the corner of Manzanita and Mesquite in Santa Clara, California, planted the first few seeds of the recovery that would take place over the next several months. That recovery would require tens of millions of dollars of healthcare and infrastructure repair. It would be marked by a massive logistical operation not to be surpassed in the United States until the aftermath of 911. Nevertheless, it all started with small communities such as ours getting together to share a meal and a pleasant chat over kindling hot coals. We all could have stayed inside our wrecked houses, maneuvering around the fallen debris by candlelight, and burrowing beneath our blankets until the sun came back. We chose instead to expand this moment out from ourselves. It was no longer then an earthquake that threw a monkey wrench into my life, or his life across the street, or her life further down the road, but rather into our lives, all of us, together, people who for the most part had not known anything more about one another than could be communicated by an occasional nod and wave. This was much more common in the past when, for example, the neighbors might get together to raise a barn, or sing away the darker spirits around a bonfire. Today, this kind of neighborliness may not be possible anymore apart from natural disasters like that Loma Prieta Earthquake. It is important for us to remember, though, that our gifts are meant to be shared, our joys meant not just for ourselves and for our immediate loved ones, but just as much for the strangers out there. The Gospel may be inside our hearts, but it is really alive only when it is rippling outward. The Christian life is a massive rebuilding project. It is recovering from the earthquake of original sin. It is cleaning up all that debris left over from our own private sins. It is realizing that we are all in this place. We are all suffering from pain and fear, as the late afternoon gives way to the dark night of the soul. As Christians, it is incumbent upon us to be the first ones outside of our homes, inviting the neighbors to a pow-wow, and inspiring them all by our own examples to bring what they can to the tailgate party and bar-b-que about to start. Christ Jesus is there with us, for we are His sheep, the faithful He brings into His Father’s Kingdom. As the block party grows, though, the strangers too will be brought into contact with Our Lord. Imperceptibly, the neighbors will become family, for recovery starts off as small and quiet, hushed conversation and a little music around a shared meal, but it is infectious. When seeded, recovery spreads faster than despair, and so Eternal Life comes back to reclaim His own from the wreckage of a darkened, smoke filled night.
Notice in today’s Gospel reading that when the shepherd returns with the one lost sheep around his shoulders, he does not just celebrate with the other sheep. Rather, he invites his neighbors and his friends to the party. Strictly speaking, the recovered sheep is not theirs, but the joy is shared with them. When the woman finds the lost silver, she does not just uncork a bottle of wine and celebrate quietly with herself in her own house. Rather, she invites her neighbors and friends over to her place, even though they never lost any silver and so had nothing of their own there to celebrate. We see that the shepherd and the woman are magnanimous, but there is more really to the story than that. We are meant to see that the joy is actually intended for those neighbors and friends, those other people out there who had never suffered a direct loss in the first place. Joy is joyful because it is shared. The Gospel is our Good News, because it is also their Good News, and we are called upon to share it with them first and foremost. Remember the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Our Lord is about to ascend to Heaven. His last word for us is not that we should exalt in ourselves the redemption we have received in Him. Indeed, we are not called to be principally concerned for our own private salvation, as if we can be saved in Christ Jesus and then should live out our lives as an island unto ourselves. On the contrary, He commands us: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” If we are truly alive in Our Lord, then we shall have more joy for our brother’s or our sister’s salvation in Christ Jesus than for our own, and that much more do we have joy for the stranger’s salvation. So let us pray for that grace by which we can step outside of our own wreckage, and be a living example of Christ for those who have fallen away and those who have yet to know Him at all. Many will never join us in our block party. They will never step out from their own wrecked homes. But we must never give up on them, for true love is steadfast no matter all the darkness, and infectious joy is the wellspring of recovery.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.