Just a word… Fourth Sunday of Easter…
Just a word… Fourth Sunday of Easter… April 25, 2021
There was great joy in the parish yesterday, as 39 religious education students received the sacrament of Confirmation. The weather was glorious as befitted the occasion, and the feelings that usually accompany receiving the sacrament were magnified by the relief that the ceremony was actually happening; these students were originally scheduled to be confirmed last Fall, but Covid 19 intervened. Bishop Caggiano presided and spoke brilliantly to the gathered congregation, peppering his pre-ceremony talk with references to his own adolescence, endearing himself to the parents and giving example to the students, as they became fully initiated Catholics.
In reviewing the events of the day, I was struck by the realization that today is commonly referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, and what all of us gathered in the church yesterday experienced was nothing short of shepherding by the bishop. For a shepherd feeds and protects, comforts and cares for the sheep, which is exactly what the bishop did.
In our gospel today we hear Jesus call himself the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep. His sheep recognize his voice, and follow. The people to whom Jesus was speaking would have understood this image. They would have known that under the care of a good shepherd the flock would live and thrive; but a bad shepherd might neglect the sheep and they could starve or be attacked by a predator.
Now, if Jesus is the shepherd, that makes us the sheep, and that’s an image I don’t care for. After all, my impression of sheep is not a flattering one…not overly bright, conforming, somewhat reliable, but simply stated…dull! I don’t think of us that way. Not only that, but if I, or any of you, are a sheep, then Martin Luther King was also a sheep, as was Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa…and they hardly fit my conception of sheep. Digging a little deeper though, I realize that we are not only called to follow the shepherd but also to imitate him. Jesus wants his flock to be filled with confidence and trust in him, but also to be brave enough to go ahead of him into pastures he has pointed out. Now we’re talking…that means that the Good Shepherd wants brave sheep…as Dr. King chose to identify with the sheep, being insulted with the same hatred to the point of sharing prison cells, instead of remaining at the pulpit and preaching against injustice; Gandhi shepherded by the power of his example, using his voice and presence to be involved with the poorest of the poor; and Teresa wandered ahead of the shepherd into the most desolate of pastures, with the diseased and the dying. They, and count- less others, show that following the shepherd means to get on with the shepherd’s work, the spread of the kingdom. That is hardly the work of timid creatures.
Good Shepherd…brave sheep. On the one hand, we are called to follow the One who cares, who heals, who gives confidence and energy to his flock. At the same time, we are called to imitate him, to be shepherds ourselves. We all know a good shepherd when we see one, but what about good, brave sheep? Turns out, they are surprisingly easy to spot: they walk with the Lord by walking with one another; they come to one another’s aid; and they look long, hard and deep enough until they recognize the Lord in the other, so that when they call out to others, it is the voice of the Lord they hear.