Fr. Pauls's Homily
Today in our readings, we have references to sheep and shepherds, leading some to call this Sunday, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We have heard the 23rd Psalm many times and we have seen the many pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But do we understand this image, especially as it is explored in our readings? Let’s take a few moments with this image to help us understand our relationship with Christ.
The Image of sheep and shepherd to help us understand our relationship with God was not a new one. It is probably the most familiar image in Scripture. God is a shepherd. We are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrews. That is perhaps why sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, more than any other animal. The great King David was a shepherd before becoming a great warrior and the king of Israel. He is generally seen as the most common author of the psalms, so he might have penned the famous psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The shepherd’s role was to protect the sheep and lead them to good pasture and flowing water. The shepherd lived with the sheep in the fields and would be there to protect them in the night. Typically, they carried two instruments: a staff and a rod. The staff had a curved top which was actually used to hook the sheep by the back leg if they tried to run away. The rod was an instrument of defense, intending to be used to drive off any animal that might threaten the sheep. It was more like a club, strong and sure.
Jesus has often been pictured as the Good Shepherd with the staff in his hand. If the curved part of the staff is to catch the sheep we might ask, “Have you ever been ‘hooked’ by Jesus?” Perhaps a time that you tried to run away and you were snagged, caught? Maybe something very difficult happened in your life that was not fair. Not knowing who to blame, you blamed God: wondering how he could let such a thing happen. Maybe you quit going to church, or maybe you just developed a hardened, cynical attitude toward God. And then, you got “hooked.” Maybe it was a CRHP retreat that opened your heart to God’s Grace and Love. Maybe it was the nudge of a good friend who gently and lovingly urged you to return to the Lord. Maybe something good happened and you knew God was in the mix.
I read a story this week of a woman who had lost her brother in World War II as a pilot. The sister was never bitter about this since she knew her brother died doing exactly what he wanted to do. But her father took it very hard and become bitter. Her father had been very active in his church and the Masonic Lodge and wanted very much wanted to get his Masonic ring. He had begun saving for it, but after his son’s death, he lost all interest in getting his ring and faith in general.
Christmas had always been a special a time for her brother, Bob, and she was fearful of the first Christmas without him. He had a way of surprising people with a special gift! As the Christmas following Bob’s death drew closer, their Dad spent more and more time just looking out the window and their mother worried constantly about her husband.
Various items from her brother’s personal things arrived over the months following his death. Each arrival reopened the wound. Finally, on December 23rd, his uniform arrived, again reopening the hurt and pain of his death. As her mother went through the pockets, she suddenly found, neatly a folded fifty dollar bill with the note attached, “For Dad’s Masonic ring.” Bob had once again offered a surprise Christmas gift!
The sister said, “I will never forget the look on my father’s face. Some kind of beautiful transformation took place—a touch of wonder, a hint of joy, a quiet serenity that was glorious to behold. The healing power of love! He stood transfixed, staring at the note and the trimly folded fifty dollar bill in his hand what seemed an eternity; then he walked to Bob’s picture hanging on the wall and solemnly saluted. ‘Merry Christmas, Son,’ he murmured and turned to welcome Christmas.”
Sometimes God hooks us, catches as we slide into bitterness, anger, or fear. Has God every hooked you? Are you being hooked right now?
In the Gospel today we hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” Author Neal Andersen contends that those of us who live in the western world don’t have a correct picture of what it means to be led like sheep. Western shepherds drive their sheep from behind the flock, often using dogs to bark at their heels. Eastern shepherds, like those in Bible times, lead their sheep from in front.
Andersen tells about watching a shepherd lead his flock on a hillside outside Bethlehem. The shepherd sat on a rock while the sheep grazed. After a time he stood up, said a few words to the sheep and walked away. The sheep followed him. It was fascinating! “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
Do we hear Christ voice calling to us? Do we hear Christ whispering to us when we are confronted by family difficulties or personal choices? Do I hear Christ whispering to me when I am confronted by political issues or concerns for our brothers and sisters around the word? Can Christ voice be heard above the constant noise of the TV, the radio shows and the ranting of angry people?
Who did you listen to the most growing up? I don’t mean who talked the most, but who did you REALLY listen to and how did that impact you? If you really listen to someone for an extended period of time several things start to happen. First, you begin to sound like them, even in our accent. Have you ever had one of your kids repeat your exact words!!? Second, when we really listen, we start to change in our attitudes and beliefs. Recently I heard someone who was pretty hostile to the issue of undocumented immigrants, until she was in the situation to really listen to one of the immigrants tell his story. She really listened and her attitude softened. Third, when we really listen to someone, we begin to see life through their eyes.
Today we hear Jesus say in the gospel, “My friends here my voice; I know them and they follow me.” This is both a statement of fact, and also a statement of challenge given to us. The fact is that Jesus knows us. He knows our hearts, our sins, our dreams, our fears. He knows what makes us ‘tick’ better than we know ourselves.
The challenge for us is: Are we willing to hear his voice enough that we will begin to sound like him? Am I willing to speak HIS words I have come to know by listening to Jesus? Am I willing to listen enough that his attitudes become my attitudes? And am I willing to listen well enough that I will begin to see this world and all his people, as Jesus sees this world and all his people? Can I truly say, “The Lord, is my shepherd.”