19 Jul 2015
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Every now and then God “cleans house:” he tries gets his people back to basics. And we see a little bit of that in Jeremiah today, where he called out the leaders of the people to say, “You’re not doing a good job and you’re not being faithful to God. And so, God is going to take over reorganize this.” The old system had to go and something new came into being.
As we know, God appointed new shepherds, new leaders, prophets and teachers. But, at the same time, God himself took on the role of the One Shepherd. And that was something pretty new at the time; the idea that God himself would take over and lead the people. God cleaned house and he set up this thing we know as the Church—the Apostolic Church, overseen by the Apostles and their successors and helpers.
And the whole purpose of this Church is to lead people back to the basics: back to God, back to the community of the faithful, back to the “green pastures and the restful waters” of the One Shepherd. My role as a priest is not to lead you to me; my role is to be a shepherd leading you to Christ, the One, overall Shepherd. And, in a big way, that happens through a life of prayer.
Now, a year ago, our bishop started a two-year prayer initiative. And the idea was to get back to the basics; for all of us to do a spiritual house-cleaning; to reorient our minds and hearts and ears to the voice of Jesus, our Shepherd. As we see in the gospel, Jesus wants his people to take some time away to be with him; to recharge, to get reoriented, to have our souls “refreshed” by him.
But a lot of times, it takes a shepherd to lead us to the Shepherd. And this is a big difference between the Catholic faith and many other Christian denominations. We stress the need for a personal relationship with the Lord. But, we also stress the need for some personal relationship with the Church, especially those people that God puts in our lives to be our shepherds, our teachers, our mentors.
We Catholics know that we depend on others to lead us to Christ, and to be Christ for us. In that sense, we are like a flock of sheep. There’s safety in the community, there’s a sense of freedom and relaxation even when we can count on others. And we just naturally want to see what others think; we want to see how God is working in other peoples’ lives. And so, our relationship with Christ the Shepherd isn’t just between him and me; it’s about him and me . . . and all of us—the entire flock. The difficulty is, of course, in knowing exactly who in that flock to follow.
Sheep have a habit of just going off and following whichever sheep happens to be leading the way, even if it’s to a bad end. I was reading that last year a flock of 600 sheep died in the Middle East because just one sheep tried to cross a little river—not knowing that the river was 15 feet deep! But the sheep just followed one right after the other into the river and they all drowned. Happily, we’re not entirely like sheep. I mean, we’d see what’s going on ahead and say, “Hey, I’m not going into that river!”
And sometimes we have to do that; we have to be able to say, “I’m not going to follow what this or that person says because what they’re saying doesn’t sound like the voice of Christ—it doesn’t sound like something my Shepherd would say.” And sometimes we have to do the opposite and say, “Yea, I can hear Christ in what this or that person is saying. It’s okay to follow them because I hear the voice of Jesus the Shepherd coming through there.”
The question is: How to do that; how to pick out and recognize the voice of Christ. I remember when I was in seminary, I didn’t have to think too much about which writers and which viewpoints I should listen to—and that’s just because I trusted the shepherding of the seminary faculty. But then I graduated and realized that, “Oh, now I’m going to have to figure out where to find the voice of Christ in books and homilies and discussions, and so on.”
You know, we read all sorts of books on the Catholic faith, we listen to preachers and teachers, we hear a friend of ours say something that may or may not sound right. Of course, then there’s the more secular voices out there—some of them are perhaps the voice of Christ; others are more like the howl of a wolf that makes our hair stand on end because it’s clearly not the voice of our Shepherd.
There are many good and faithful shepherds in the Church: priests, deacons, teachers, parents, friends. And there are not-so-good shepherds as well: priests, deacons, teachers, parents, friends. I imagine there’s probably a mix of both in every shepherd we come across. But we don’t avoid the mess of it all by going it alone. Instead, we listen to others, we ask questions, we study and, above all, we pray to Jesus our Shepherd. We pray, “Jesus, help me to hear you. Help me to hear you and follow you.” That’s the “system” our Lord set up when he cleaned his house and made the Church. He is the One Shepherd, and yet, he appoints other shepherds to help out.
As we move into this next year of our bishop’s prayer initiative, it might be helpful to know a little bit of how to hear the Shepherd’s voice coming through (or not coming through) other people. To begin with, let me paint a little portrait of how a sheep might experience a real-life shepherd. Then we might have an idea of what to listen for and to look for:
The shepherd wakes up in the morning with his sheep on his mind. He’s been sleeping on the ground alongside his fellow shepherds—he knows the value of working together. He looks out at the fold of sheep and, even though there are several flocks mixed together in this one pasture, he knows exactly which ones are his. After all, he knows each one of them by name; they aren’t just anonymous bundles of wool on four legs—each one has a personality (of a sort), and he knows each one personally.
The shepherd leads the flock with care; he doesn’t drive them hard. He leads them—sometimes in the front, sometimes from behind, sometimes walking alongside them. And he leads them to a pasture where there’s lots of water to quench their thirst. He wants them to be satisfied, and yet, he knows that his sheep don’t like running streams; they’re afraid to get too close to all that turbulence. And so, he leads them to “restful” waters, to little pools of standing water.
To pass the hours, the shepherd plays with his sheep. He pretends to run away, and the sheep run after him and surround him, jumping around him with delight. They don’t worry because they know their shepherd won’t ever leave them. He is faithful and compassionate. But, if he finds one that causes others to stray, he’ll take that one and break its leg so it has to rely on the shepherd. He’ll carry that one around his neck until it’s healed. And that one will end up having a closer bond with the shepherd than all the others, because that one sheep spent the most time with the shepherd while it healed.
At the end of the day, the shepherd brings his flock to mingle with the others who belong to other shepherds. And, together, as one flock, they sleep under the watchful and loving gaze of the One Shepherd above. That’s just a little look at how a real-life shepherd relates to his flock. Of course, that sounds a lot like our Lord, who is the definitive Shepherd.
And so, if you’re trying to wade through all the books, the homilies, the speeches, the things you hear and see on the internet and social media—if you’re trying to hear the voice of your Shepherd it all that, remember that little image of how a sheep experiences a shepherd.
All those shepherds in the Church, and the shepherds in life we can follow are those who sound and act like a real shepherd. They care about you as a person. They’re humble enough to draw from others’ wisdom. You know, it’s very helpful to just glance at the bibliography at the end of books when you read them—how often do they use the wisdom of other writers, especially spiritual writers throughout the ages? How often do they use Scripture? A good shepherd to follow is who sees him- or herself as part of something bigger than themselves.
A person who might echo the voice of Christ to you is someone who leads you, and never forces you. And they should lead you to a place of harmony, a place of being settled inside. Now, that doesn’t mean that that person won’t lead through a “dark valley.” It doesn’t mean that person won’t try to “break your leg” and challenge you to rely more on God. But those challenges should have some resolution. A good shepherd, a good person to listen to is one who gives you courage, strength, and insight.
Really, if we want to see if someone is a good person to follow, just apply the psalm from today and say, “Does this person sound like the One Shepherd?”
Number one: the shepherds in the Church and others you might follow should lead you to God—not to him- or herself. “The Lord is my shepherd; the Lord; I shall not want.” “In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside still waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake—for the purpose of our salvation.”
“Even though I sometimes walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; because the shepherd is at my side with the rod of truth and the staff of compassion that give me courage. You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes—you lay before me a vision of life and true fidelity; you anoint my head with the oil of gladness; my cup of blessings—my relationship with Christ the One Shepherd overflows.”
“Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in unfailing hope that the house of the Lord will be open to me, little ol’ me, for years to come.” When you listen to a preacher, when to see a work of art or read a story; when you read a book about our faith and about God, or when you hear somebody’s opinion on the internet or in social media, use that psalm—use Psalm 23—as a test, as a mirror.
Does that book, or preacher or whatever lead you to experience the shepherding of Christ? Does it lead you in some way to the pasture of that One Shepherd, who cares for his sheep by name, who plays with them and teases them, who is firm when a firm hand is needed, and guides them to a place we can call “home?"
As we enter this second year of bishop’s prayer initiative, try to listen more closely for the voice of your Shepherd. He’s placed a whole Church-worth of shepherds to help you in getting to know him better. But first, we have to hear and respond to the words of Christ in Scripture: “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and rest a while.” Come away and I will refresh you, my dear, little sheep.