5th Sunday of Easter Year B

Acts 9: 21- 36 / Ps 22: 26-27, 28, 30, 31-32 / 1 Jn 3:18-24 / Jn 15:1-8

     The last conversation I had with my grandmother before she passed away was a simple one. My grandmother, who had very severe dementia, kept asking my brother and I “what do you want to be when you grown up?” Since I was only in 7th grade I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so my brother and I would tell her that we did not know, to which she would respond “you can be whatever you want to be when your grow up.” Due to her dementia, we must have had that conversation 50 times in a row, and while I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, that conversation forever drilled into my mind, the important lesson of the American dream, the belief that this country affords anyone who works hard enough the opportunity to succeed. While the American dream is one of the things that makes our country great, as with anything, if it is abused, it can lead to the deadly conclusion that each of us has the power to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and succeed simply by ourselves.

     Today’s parable of the vine and the branches warns us against taking the American dream to the extreme, by being so overly independent that we reject the help of others. There simply is no room in our faith for believing that we can achieve our eternal reward by earning it on our own, after all our Lord is clear in today’s gospel when He says “without me you can do nothing.” It is really quite simple, “a persons development is compromised if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.”[1] The problem with taking the American dream and making it a spiritual principle is the American dream promises worldly success, but if we want heavenly success we need the help of those who have already obtained their heavenly reward. I think all of us are pretty good at falling to our knees when things go bad; we turn to the Lord in times of illness or difficulty, but do we really believe that without Jesus we can do nothing. How often do our lives proclaim “without my work ethic, talent, money etc. I can do nothing.” When we fall into the trap of making the American dream a spiritual principle do we not say that we don’t need a savior? Do we not then say we don’t need Jesus?

     My friends, it is in our sinfulness, our poverty and our failures that we find space to hear God. How often do we grow closer to Him when we find ourselves against the wall? Is it not true that “God makes use of evil in such a superb way and with such skill that the result is better than if there had never been evil.”[2] Is it not when we face our greatest difficulties, when we find ourselves helpless and left with no other option that we often realize we are not in control and turn to God?

     Every time I go to Washington DC, I meet a friend of mine who works at the Pentagon for breakfast and then I ask him to take me to the Pentagon’s Hall of Hero’s. I have visited that wall more times than I can count, but every time I visit I find myself standing there in awe. There is something about that wall that for me defines the true American dream. Every time I stand their I cannot help but be thankful that these true American heroes understood that the true American dream is not about one’s own individual strength, but rather about persevering when their back was against the wall, so that a greater good could come from the great evil and difficulties they faced. Did you know that since the Civil War only three US military chaplains have won the Medal of Honor and all 3 of them are Catholic priests. I can’t say that surprises me, because as Catholics we know that God is present in the midst of our greatest difficulties and struggles so as Catholics even when things are at their darkest, we have hope, and uniting ourselves ever more closely to our Savior, without whom “we can do nothing,” we should find the strength to push on in complete trust and abandonment to the Father.

     One aspect of becoming a Christian, one aspect to abiding in Christ, is having to “leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standard, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being and aided by that light to find the right path.”[3] We must remember “holiness does not stem so much from the effort of man’s will, as from the effort to never restrict the action of grace in one’s own soul.”[4] Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches is a stark reminder to us that “Jesus always has victory when He has your abandonment He needs nothing more than that to bring about the Divine wonders that His Heart has prepared for you from all eternity.”[5] Regardless of where we are experiencing pains, sufferings, or weaknesses, we must allow faith, hope and belief to enter into that darkness, remembering that without Jesus we can do nothing. God truly uses those moments of weakness in our lives to call us to abandon ourselves to Him, so that being grafted onto Him we will bear heavenly fruit. May we never forget that “the Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there waiting for us with open arms.”[6]

[1] Cardinal Ratzinger. Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate. Washington DC: US Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2009). par. 68

[2] Wilfrid, Stinssen. Into Your Hands, Father Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us. San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2011. pg 15.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Jesus of Nazareth Part II. San Francisco: Ignatius Press,2011. pg. 67.

[4] Karol Wojtyla. The Meaning of Vocation. United States: Scepter Publishers, 1997. pg. 10

[5] Fr. Jean CJ D’Elbee. I Believe in Love. Manchester: Sophia Institute Press. (2001.) pg. 89.

[6] Evangelii Gaudium pg. 1.

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