A few weeks ago I was visiting our youngest Sunday school class, for 4-6 year olds, and they were coloring two pictures: a picture of cute little sheep and lambs in a field and a picture of Jesus carrying a little lamb in his arms. The teacher, one of our parents, was teaching: God loves you and God takes care of the little sheep; Jesus loves you and takes care of you. I sat down and praised the work they eagerly showed me. We sang “Jesus loves me” and I got ready to go, saying that they were a beautiful group of little lambs. Bobbie,6, asked me what a lamb was. I said a baby sheep. Riah,5, said to me “Well, I am not a sheep!” I had to agree that they were beautiful little girls and that God loved each of them very much. It was too hard to explain that sheep stand for many things in the scriptures, including God’s people,but I gave it a good try.
In the first reading for this Sunday,Ezekiel 34:11-12, the prophet Ezekiel is following up on a ten verse challenge to the shepherds of Israel who have lost the sheep, who take care of themselves instead of the flock, who actually feed off the flock. In verses eleven and twelve God takes the sheep back and looks after them, searching for them, rescuing them and giving them good pasture land. In Verse 16b God says “I will shepherd the flock with justice”. God, the Good Shepherd, goes on to say that the fat sheep push the thin ones out of the way and drive away the weak sheep. Reading this passage as a 21st Century Christian and Roman Catholic Christ follower, I am pleased that we can dissent even as Ezekiel did. Rev. Charles Curran, a famous moral theologian who disagrees with the church on many things, calls this loyal dissent. Isn’t this what the prophets did? Isn’t this what Ezekiel is saying? Watch out you so called shepherds-you are losing the sheep and driving them away. Pope Francis lives a lifestyle of simplicity and reaches out to the poor and outcast no matter what the other shepherds are doing. He challenges us to “have the smell of sheep” on us-to be deeply and closely involved with the sheep.
Jesus, in the famous Matthew 25:31-46 passage, minces no words. He is telling us that to walk the walk of building the kingdom/kin-dom of God we are to feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the prisoners. To do this is to serve Jesus, the Christ. To do this is to serve God. To do this is to care for the sheep.In another Jesus given metaphor: if we love him we are to feed the sheep, ewes, and lambs. Anything less than this is to talk the talk sitting on our rear ends. It counts for nothing. In this passage Jesus also separates the doers from the talkers and lets us know clearly that “as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these,you neglected to do it to me” (V.46). There is no eternal life in this. Love is an action word. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta says: “Love is not words. It is action. Our vocation is to love”.
The Good Shepherd is both the name and the metaphor for our church. We teach that each one is to serve the next one. We serve mostly the hungry, homeless, formerly homeless, underemployed,unemployed, thirsty, not well clothed, sick, prisoners and other outcasts. We serve one another. There are moments of great joy in our church and tomorrow we will affirm the baptism of a young adult man who was almost dead from an opportunistic infection, struggling for life in the hospital a year ago to date. As he was baptized by me in the hospital he is really happy to make and affirm baptismal promises when he is healthy again a year later. He has a difficult life of battling opportunistic infections and sometimes he is difficult within his family as he and they deal with what it means to battle virulent disease so young. Yet, we are so thankful for the miracle of his life and his desire to follow Christ. The work of such service is often joyful. But just as often it is very difficult as the needs never stop, and the resources ,including human resources needed to serve, are never enough. There are moments of almost screaming-help, we can’t do this anymore,send some help, please! There are moments of impatience and frustration- saying when will that one ever see the light for his or her life? There are moments of anger when one larger sheep grabs all the best food being served or when we are treated to a diatribe of curse words as someone frustrated with not having what is needed yells at the closest people he or she can find. There are no saints here, just a small group of very human folks trying to be good shepherds. And we can only pray that at the end of the day, we too will be lifted up and carried by the Shepherd. This is our faith. And in the meantime, let us continue the work of the reign of God,the work of the good shepherd.
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP
Co-Pastor Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community