This is Good Shepherd Sunday. What image comes to mind when you think of a shepherd; probably a pleasant one. Green pastures, gentle breezes, sheep grazing peacefully on the hillside; or shepherds kneeling at the manger before the baby Jesus. The fact is that the life of a shepherd was hardly comfortable or easy, and often not peaceful. Shepherds in the semi-arid lands of the Middle East lived and still live tough lives. They stayed with the animals day and night, enduring the odors and weather and dust. They had to be ever alert to dangers from predators, storms and rustlers. And they had to be ever mindful of the inattentive wandering sheep that so easily could get lost or in trouble. To be a shepherd was and is hard work. The people knew this when Jesus described himself as a shepherd. But they also knew that the prophets had declared that God would send a shepherd to lead them, to protect them, the Messiah.
Jesus described himself as not just a shepherd, but the Good Shepherd. What does that mean? One who is good evidences kindness and compassion, commitment and self-giving. A good priest is one who shows his love for God through pastorally caring for others. A good parent is one who sacrifices in quiet ways for the children even to the point of carefully invoking measured discipline out of love. The Good Shepherd loves His flock to the point of sacrificing for them and his flock longs to hear his voice.
Sheep are dependent on their shepherd and we are dependent on our Good Shepherd. Sheep left on their own can easily get lost and so can we. They nibble their way into trouble and so do we when we are unconnected with Christ. We drift away; nibble ourselves away by giving in to little temptations, compromising just a bit to get along, and then a little bit more. It can lead to situations difficult to correct or to get out of and we wonder how we got ourselves into this fix in the first place. The Good Shepherd cares about us, offers us forgiveness and reaches out to help us in those moments, especially through His Church, although it requires our owning up to our wanderlust.
Sheep without a shepherd may go hungry, drift into desolate areas, spiritual deserts. We need spiritual nourishment. We need something or someone to connect ourselves to. St. Augustine said our souls are restless until they rest in Thee, in God. We often seek to fill that void, that emptiness with things other than God: work, money, things, technology, drugs, alcohol, or cheap relationships. But over time they never satisfy. It is only in filling our spiritual hunger with Christ that we can be satisfied.
Our Good Shepherd watches out of us but does not force us. We can choose to wander or walk away from him. We do that when we focus on what is passing not on what will never pass away. This world is passing; the one to come will not. But we can get mired down in this world, especially when we listen to bad shepherds.
A shepherd in Scotland was asked if his sheep would follow the voice of a stranger. He replied, ‘Yes, when they are sick, but never when they are well. A sick sheep will follow anyone.’ Anyone is always beckoning us.
As I grow older that lesson is more easily apparent. Have you ever tried to do something and discover you can’t do it like you used to? The energy level is lower, the muscles ache earlier, and the eyes aren’t as strong. That is a result of the aging of our bodies, a natural passing. I used to run a lot for exercise. Then my knees began to hurt and my recovery times lengthened. Now I walk, but even that is wearing sometimes. I have had to learn to live with the reality of my life moving on and so must we all not only physically but spiritually.
Gladstone a political leader from Scotland was walking along a country road when a storm blew in. Snow began to fall and the wind picked up. He noticed sheep coming out from a valley climbing to the hillside. He said to the old shepherd ‘are not sheep the most foolish of animals? A storm is coming and they leave the shelter of the valley to open themselves to the fury of the storm.’ The shepherd responded, ‘If you were a sheep you’d have more sense.’ He then noted that if the sheep remained in the valley snow drifts would come and death with it. Only on the hills facing the storm would they survive.’ Sometimes we too must face the storms of life to survive.
A few weeks ago, I had trouble standing and climbing stairs. Then after a mostly sleepless night I awoke with my right cheek sagging and frozen, my speech was slurred. Classic stoke symptoms. Against my normal nature to tough things out I called for help. The EMT professionals came and took me to the hospital where the Avera professionals took great care of me. May they be blessed. I believe the Good Shepherd intervened to encourage me to go against my normal restraint and saved if not my life, at least more serious ramifications. As a result here I am back in the saddle, a bit humbled but also a bit healthier.
As I face the demands as Bishop, I need the guidance and support of the Good Shepherd. When we face the realities of life and rub up against our personal limitations, we discover how much need we have for our Good Shepherd.
Without Him we can become anxious or frightened, or what may be worse, lonely. Saint Mother Teresa once suggested that loneliness is the greatest poverty in the United States. It need not be.
We have a heavenly Father who cares for you and for me and who sent his only son as our Messiah, as our Good Shepherd. Easter proclaims that truth. He offers to protect us and forgive us. If we listen to him and stay fixed on following Him we need never feel frightened or lonely again. Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.’ As the psalm response declares, ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock.’ May it be true.