4th Sunday of Easter (B) - “Good Shepherd” Sunday
Jesus says repeatedly in today’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd” and “a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the “Good Shepherd” discourse, Jesus continues his critique of the religious leaders of his day while revealing who he is to his disciples. What Jesus says about the “good shepherd” is instructive for any of us who are pastors or are responsible for leading others in the faith - so that applies not only to priests and teachers of religion, but to all parents and godparents - really all of the us who are baptized and called to witness to our faith in the world. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for his sheep. We all have a resistance to sacrifice - to what is inconvenient. We don’t go looking for sacrifice, but the opportunities for sacrifice are all around us. They come to us. How do we say “yes” to them? How do we freely embrace them like Jesus does - not becoming a victim of circumstances - having our life taken from us, but laying it down on our own? Laying down one’s life for another doesn’t happen because one agrees with a theoretical idea - to be a good parent, wife, husband, priest, “I should do this…” like one is following a moral code. Rather, sacrifice is freely made when one sees the face of the beloved. We see this often when a young person resistant to the concept of marriage - being tied to one person for the rest of one’s life, something that in theory demands an unthinkable sacrifice and seems like a tremendous restriction, suddenly changes his tune when he falls in love with a real person. We see something similar when a couple is hesitant to have children because children are very costly, will greatly restrict one’s freedom, and demand a tremendous sacrifice, but what seemed impossible is embraced with joy and freedom when the face of the baby is revealed. Many a new parent speak about how tired they are but at the same time how happy they are when they look at the face of their child. Seeing his or her face makes everything worth it. Laying down one’s life is possible through an intimate knowing of the other, i.e., being intimately attached to another but in a non-possessive way. This person - the spouse - is an unexpected gift; she has been given to me but is not “mine” - there is something mysterious about her that is a sign of the divine. Same with the child; I can only live this relationship of sacrifice if I see the other as sign of the Father’s love for me. Jesus speaks of this intimate knowing when he says of the sheep, “I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” The laying down of his life flows from this relationship of intimate love backed by the intimate love that he has with the Father. Jesus contrasts the love of the shepherd with the way the “hired man” relates to the sheep. There is no bond or belonging between the hired man and the sheep, and therefore, when the sacrifice is on the horizon in the form of a wolf, the hired man runs away. For the hired man, the sheep are a means to an end, a way to get paid. He is not interested in them or concerned for them for themselves but only for what they can do for him or give back to him. For the hired man, caring for the sheep is a job, not a vocation - not a calling from God. Without the relationship with God, we cannot live sacrifice or mercy. Without being in an intimate relationship with God our Father, we begin to treat our relationships - with spouse and children - as jobs - as a series of tasks to get done, but our heart is not in them. They feel like obligations. We might “follow all the rules and do everything correctly” like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, but we will not be happy. Those relationships that began filled with a wonder that pointed us to the mystery, become tombs that suffocate us when we try to save them on our own - when we forget who has given us those relationships and cease to depend on him. Mercy means literally “to give one’s heart to the poor”, i.e., giving of oneself to one who cannot pay you back. This is how the father loves us, and this is how Jesus loved us on the cross to reveal the father’s love and to reconcile us to the Father - to bring us back into an intimate relationship with the Father - to make us sons and daughters of God. St. John exclaims, filled with amazement, “Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” We don’t deserve it, yet look how he loved us! Like the prodigal son, we rejected the Father, and the Father’s reaction is to sacrifice himself. He doesn’t make demands on the son but waits for the son. When the son returns empty handed and poor, the father is merciful. He embraces the son and kisses him and restores his sonship. Repentance is the fruit of this experience of mercy - the fruit of receiving an unexpected and unmerited gift: “I don’t deserve to be called your son.” That is a fact, yet the father embraces him as son even after the son has wasted his inheritance. An inheritance - full sonship - cannot be taken, it can only be given. That is what the son discovers as he rediscovers that he is a son: that his father loves him - that the father is merciful. We only know we are loved when we accept that our life is given to us - that our life is born from mercy. God sacrifices himself, lays down his life for us, so that we may have life, and he does this in the face of our rejection of him. “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” Being loved in the face of our rejection - still being longed for and waited for when we have gone astray - being embraced when we have nothing to give - this experience of mercy is the cornerstone of our faith. Mercy is the foundation of the church. Peter is the “rock” on which Jesus builds the church. Peter denied Jesus - rejected Jesus, but after the resurrection, Peter was looked at by Jesus with such tenderness and mercy and was commanded by Jesus then to “feed my lambs and tend my sheep.” Forgetting his dependence on Jesus, Peter stopped following Jesus and denied his relationship with Jesus. But it was through Christ’s mercy that Peter was healed and made the chief shepherd of the flock. He was made a father - the first Holy Father. Filled with divine love, Peter proclaims with clarity and certainty the path to salvation.
Whether a parent or a priest, the only way to see miracles, i.e., the resurrection and to rediscover what was lost in our lives and the lives of those entrusted to our care is to embody mercy, to embrace sacrifice, and to continue to love the ones who reject you - respecting the journey and the struggle with sacrifice that each person is taking. The big challenge to living this dynamic of mercy in these days is that intimate knowing of each other is much harder. We are much more isolated and suspicious of each other because of the pandemic. How does one fall in love or be moved with compassion if one cannot see the face of another? You can’t really encounter another person except in person. It is through a human face that the face of Christ is revealed, and the more we see his face, the more we find comfort even in the sacrifice and readily embrace the crosses given to us. Please give me the opportunity, as your pastor, to get to know you. I would like to be able to visit families in their homes, to have a meal together, and to hear your concerns. If you would like to have me over or invite me out, please call the rectory. Being a priest is not a job but a vocation through which the love of God is revealed by participating in the sacrifice of Christ, i.e., laying down one’s life for others and witnessing how the victory of Christ has entered the world. The priest, shepherd, and father point at the resurrection through the example of his own life and help others to embrace the cross and continue to walk on that path. Please pray for me that I may be a “good shepherd” here at St. Charles and that we can take this journey together and meet the cross not with suspicion but with curiosity for how the resurrection will appear for us along the way.