Praying For a Shepherd
April 16-17, 2005
John 10: 1-10
We live in historic times. This week the cardinals of our church will be gathered in Rome to elect a new pope. For over a quarter of a century, we as a church have been led by the ministry of John Paul II. But this week there will be a new pope, and a new era in the church life will begin.
It is very appropriate then that this Sunday in our gospel, we are presented with this image of Christ as the shepherd, as the gate to the sheep. This image reveals Christ’s care for us and his activity. The shepherd cares for the sheep. He is not a thief or a bandit. Moreover, the shepherd is active. He calls the sheep by name; they come out and follow him. This image of Christ is something to anchor us this week, because it is important for us to believe that Christ is the shepherd of the church and that Christ will be active as the new pope is chosen. After all, if we do not believe that Christ will be active in this process of choosing the successor of St. Peter, in what action do we expect him to be active?
All of us probably have our own personal ideas and desires for a new pope. I believe that it is important for us to communicate those ideas and hopes to our shepherd. We should all spend some time in prayer today, telling Christ what we believe the needs of the church are and what the qualities of the new successor to Peter should be. The gospel emphasizes the close connection between Jesus and his sheep. They recognize his voice; he calls them each by name. Therefore, it is not only appropriate, but imperative, for us to believe that our prayers, our desires, our hopes for the church are something that our shepherd wants to hear.
Spend some time in prayer today, communicating your vision and your need to our shepherd. Here is what I have been praying. I pray for a pope who will share the same energy and vision of John Paul II, someone who will be able as effectively to be a focus and symbol of the Catholic church in the world, someone who could carry on the tradition of moral integrity and authority which our past pope demonstrated to so many throughout the world. I am also praying for a pope that has a pastoral heart, a pope that is not only connected to the mechanics of the church, but understands the needs of the people throughout the world, a pope who realizes how many people struggle with faith and doubt and the troubles in their life and the need for the church to be present to them in times of difficulty. I pray for a pope who realizes how important it is that we continue the work of John Paul II in relating to the other great religions of our world, to the Jewish people, to the Moslems, to all people of good faith. I pray for a pope who will respect the ministry of his fellow bishops. The church a worldwide community. The needs vary from diocese to diocese. I am praying for a pope who will allow local bishops more flexibility in dealing with the particular issues of their dioceses. I am also praying for a pope who will honestly read the signs of the times in our world and prepare the church to address them. Not least among those issues is the issue of the tremendous shortage of priests in the United States and in many other church communities throughout the world.
That is what I am praying. But I am only one sheep. Our shepherd needs to hear from all of us, and it is important for all of us to express our desires, our perceptions of the needs of the church to the shepherd, because of our relationship to him. So the first thing I would recommend that we all do today and throughout this week is pray. The second thing that I would recommend is that we trust, that we believe that Christ our shepherd will be active. You have already read in the newspaper all the leading candidates for pope and all the analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. You can be sure that when a new pope is chosen, the media will cover us with a deluge of details and analysis of who he is, what he believes, what he will do or not do, which part of the church won, which part of the church lost, in this election. I think it would be wise to realize that much of what you read will be wrong. Even to the extent that it is right, history has proven that people who assume the See of Peter often revise their thinking, often change in their attitude and approach when they are given the responsibility to lead the church.
So as the new pope is chosen, I think we should be slow to judge and quick to trust. To trust and believe that Christ was involved in this election and that this man bears a gift, a direction that will help our church. We live in historic times. This week it important for us to claim our relationship to Christ the shepherd, to pray that he might know what we need and desire from our own lips, to trust and believe that he will be active in the upcoming days. Prayer and trust are the two qualities we should bring as we begin this historic week in the life of our church.
April 13, 2008
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. It is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That is because in all three cycles of the Liturgical Year, the Gospel presents us with an image of Jesus as the shepherd and we as the sheep. Now preaching on this Sunday has its challenges. This was driven home to me several years ago when after preaching on this Sunday, a parishioner came into the sacristy with a criticism. He said, “I know it’s scriptural and all that, but I don’t like being compared to a sheep. Sheep are dumb animals. They have very little initiative or energy, and they are easily led around by whoever would want to manipulate them. Is this image of being a sheep really a useful image for a disciple in the twenty-first century?” I thought that the criticism was valid, and I am careful in my preaching every year on “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
That’s why it was good last week that I read an article about sheep farmers. Each year United States sheep farmers bring in sheep shearers from Australia or New Zealand remove the wool from the sheep. But because of the present weakness of the American dollar, fewer and fewer sheep shearers have been willing to come to the United States. Therefore, the farmers have begun to train Americans to shear the sheep. The newspaper interviewed a number of the trainees who insisted that the traditional image of the sheep as being peaceful and docile is way overblown. Sheep will indeed, allow you to shear them but only if you know what you are doing, only if they trust you. If they do not trust you, they will assert themselves and run away. And when a hundred pound sheep makes a decision to run away, it takes a great deal of experience and muscle to hold them where you want them.
Now I thought that this new information might be used to enlarge and deepen the traditional image of sheep. Sheep are peaceful for sure, but they can also be assertive and strong. These two qualities together provide a very useful image for discipleship in the twenty-first century. We are called by Christ to be disciples who are not only peaceful but also assertive, not only docile but also strong.
Our call to peace comes directly from the scriptures. Peace characterizes God’s kingdom. Isaiah dreams of the day when the swords will be beaten into plowshares, and Jesus promises us a peace that the world cannot give. So as followers of Christ, we must be people of peace. We must be people opposed to violence. Indeed, we must understand that although choosing violence appears to deliver what we want, it instead contributes to a cycle which can destroy us. This is true both culturally and personally. Every time we as a nation use our military might to bend another nation to our will, instead of using dialogue and negotiation, we choose an option contrary to the kingdom of God. Every time we support a social solution based on violence, whether that be the violence of abortion or the violence of capital punishment, we take a step contrary to what God intends. Every time we act personally out of anger or vengeance, every time we use our position or authority in the workplace or home to coerce someone to do what we want them to do, we show that we are not acting as Christ’s disciples. Violence is not the answer. We must be people of peace.
But at the same time, we must be people of strength. The gospel does not call us to be wallflowers or doormats. We are not doing Christ’s will when we avoid taking a stand against evil and injustice. We are not being faithful disciples when we accept the manipulations of our world, the imperfections of our government, the flaws of our culture. We are not following the gospel when we accept abuse in our workplace or in our home, imagining that such acts of violence are acceptable—or, even worse, something which we deserve. It is part of our mission to oppose evil, to assert ourselves against those forces which can harm us and harm the people we love.
So if Christ is the shepherd and we are the sheep, it is important to know what a sheep is: a peaceful animal but one who is willing to assert itself against the evil which surrounds it. We are called to be people of peace but also people of strength, willing to commit ourselves in non-violent ways to oppose the evil of the world, willing to stand against violence even as we take steps to protect ourselves and our families. Now this mixture of peacefulness and strength is an uncommon and delicate balance. But it is the balance of the gospel. And we who are called to follow the shepherd commit ourselves to find that balance and to proclaim it with our lives.
Going In and Out
May 11, 2014
Christ is our good shepherd. But what does a shepherd do? Today’s gospel answers this question succinctly. It tells us that a shepherd leads the sheep in and leads them out. Both of these actions are required, if we are to have a healthy relationship with Christ.
At night the shepherd leads the sheep in, in through the gate, into the sheepfold. He leads them in because the night is dangerous, the time when wolves prowl about for food. So leading the sheep in is to protect them, to offer them comfort and security. We need to trust that Christ is present to offer us protection and comfort in the dangerous times of our lives. When we have to face family turmoil, physical sickness, or financial hardship, we need wisdom and courage. Then it is important to understand that we are not wandering around in the dark alone. Christ has gathered us in, to experience the security of his presence. He is watching us and guarding us through the night.
But our relationship with Christ is not just about security and comfort. The shepherd also leads the sheep out: out of the sheepfold into the world, out to do his work. Christ asks us to serve others. He calls us to be the best mothers and fathers, sons and daughters that we can be. He leads us out to build his kingdom, to attack injustice, to oppose oppression, and to help those who are in need.
Christ, our good shepherd, both leads us in and leads us out. He comforts us and challenges us. He gives us security, and he calls us to serve. These two dynamics are essential parts of being a disciple. They are also interrelated, because one suffers, if the other is absent. If we begin to think that our relationship with Christ is merely about our security and comfort, it can easily become selfish. We can begin to focus more and more on ourselves, on our wants, fears, and needs. When this tendency begins to take hold, then we must allow our shepherd to lead us out, out of preoccupation with ourselves, out into service of others. But on the other hand, if we begin to think that our relationship with Christ is merely about doing his work, we can easily become exhausted. We give and give to our family, to our friends, to our community until there is nothing left. When this begins to happen, we must allow our shepherd to lead us in, into the security of his presence, into the comfort of his love. We must take time to withdraw, to pray, to be thankful for what we have received so that we can find the energy to serve again.
Christ, our shepherd, both leads us in and leads us out. We should let him. We should go in, embrace his presence, and drink in his love. Then, we can go out and be his presence in the world.
May 7, 2017
1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10
You might think it easy to follow Jesus, until you try it. It might seem romantic to be a disciple until you realize what Jesus is asking of you. The author of the letter to Peter throws down a challenge to us in this regard in today’s second reading. He asks us to follow Jesus’ example of nonviolence. He says that when Jesus was insulted, he did not insult in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten those who caused him pain. Pope Francis echoes these words of First Peter this year in his address on the World Day of Peace, encouraging all Christians to cultivate nonviolence in their inner-most personal thoughts and values.
But being a nonviolent person is no easy thing in the world in which we live. Our society values power and aggression. The man who speaks the loudest, the woman who has the most influence, the country that has the greatest number of armaments is likely to be seen as the greatest, the most successful. We want to be sure that if we are threatened or attacked we can retaliate, over and over again. So Jesus’ call to nonviolence runs counter to all of these inclinations. And it’s no wonder that so many Christians ignore this teaching. They see it as outmoded and unrealistic, and therefore choose to concentrate on other things that Jesus has said. But presuming that we can take Jesus at his word, that he truly wants us to be nonviolent people, how can we follow his teaching?
Today’s letter from first Peter tells us that we can become followers of Jesus by practice. It says that Jesus left us an example to follow. The Greek word that we translate as “example” is actually very concrete. It is an written pattern that was used by those who were trying to learn how to write, a pattern that they would trace over and over again until, in time, they would be able to form the letters on their own. This is what we must do in following Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence. We must try over and over again to reject anger and revenge. We must try when we are successful and when we are not to replace hurt with forgiveness and misunderstanding with mercy. Always holding before us the pattern of Jesus who suffered for our sakes, we must be people who believe that our difficulties, our struggles are not wasted but are used for the sake of others and for building God’s kingdom.
Now, we should never choose suffering for suffering’s sake, but when we must suffer, patiently enduring our suffering is following Jesus’ example. It is not easy to follow Jesus, but by patiently tracing over and over again the curves of his love, we will be able to replace hatred with mercy, and become his disciples.