Acts 4: 5-12; Ps 23; 1 Jn 3: 16-24; JOHN 10: 11-18
In the name of God, who created us from love … AMEN.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd,” and we all say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For this Good Shepherd Sunday, I made a list of what I know about sheep and shepherds, and the first thing I know is this: the shepherd/sheep relationship is the most prevalent image in the Bible of God and God’s care for God’s people, and I also know “the Lord is my shepherd.”
Last week I met two remarkable men “of a certain age.” The first was a remarkable Roman Catholic priest, whom I met at a rather glitzy wedding. The other priests at the wedding spoke German and Turkish, but when Fr. Gavin opened his mouth it was obvious he came from here. I looked for him at the dinner following the wedding, and he was holding forth, telling stories and greeting the many people whom he knew. I commented that I was pleased to see the announcement in the leaflet of the wedding in this foreign cathedral inviting all the baptized to communion. He said, “That’s right, and it is right.” I observed that that was not the practice here in this Archdiocese, and he rolled his eyes. I asked him how he knew the couple, and he’d been a roommate of an uncle of the groom and had stayed in touch, virtually all over the world, and knew the sons and nephews, etc (it’s a family of sons through the generations —all the women marry in—) who’d come here to BC, Harvard, or doctors. He said he worked at a local parish, but I thought there was more. He has a PhD, somewhat unusual for an Irish non-Jesuit priest of his age. I asked various leading questions until he said he’d been head of part of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, and there surely weren’t many Catholic priests in leadership roles there then. Finally he began to tell some of that story. He said there had been some construction at the museum—he didn’t mention that an unknown woman had bombed it in 1970—and in the cleanup, there had been found many “boxes of stuff,” including photographs from about the 1880’s and 1890’s, from all over near east archaeological sites. He has spent the years since then, researching those images to identify the people and buildings of that long-gone Semitic world, before the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. It has been his role to take each even partially identified image to its source to give it back to the relevant museum in Harvard’s name and to ask for additional identification help. He has been an emissary of scholarship, identification, and collegiality for, not only Harvard, but of course, the Church. He has companions, pals, and fans everywhere, winning friends by his intelligence, genuine friendliness and humor, and yet is the most regular-seeming, cheerful, Irish priest. We talked about the Vatican’s attack on American nuns and he was appalled, and was delighted to meet me, a Boston Episcopal woman priest, and knew this church. When I was looking him up to see what year he was born, I found several stories about his hospital, pastoral visiting of young students, as well as his Semitic museum work, and yet he says he’s a just parish priest in a small town. He was gathering people though his appealing manner, but always his role as priest was there.
Here’s another thing I know about sheep and shepherds: The shepherd’s role is to guarantee the well-being of the sheep, not to be out ahead as performer, star, leader, or point of the relationship. The security of the sheep is paramount.
I met another remarkable man at this week’s Wednesday concert—he knew the composer of one of the pieces, and had come to listen to the music and support his friend. We knew we’d crisscrossed paths, but when he realized that I was clergy, he apologized for not addressing me by title, but we were so enjoying our conversation that he got over that. He’d been one of our Bishop’s personal attorneys, had been to Yale Law School, AND, was a Tuskegee Airman, and he’d had a son at school with our younger son. He mentioned that he sat on the Board of a Montessori School, not because that was necessarily his choice of schools, but because it was at Columbia Point, which needed any good school. It meant his supporting an order of Catholic nuns, but their work was so generous there, it was important that he work for them. Again, a lifelong Episcopalian, baptized at St. Augustine and St. Martin, he worked for a variety of groups, Episcopal churches and causes, but for the work’s goals, not his role.
Here’s that reality about shepherds: the shepherd watches the sheep’s back, seeing that they’re safe, not that he’s known as their shepherd.
The goal is the well being of the sheep.
Then I needed to consider a woman shepherd—other than Bo Peep, and I remembered a woman who’d come from a poor high school in Connecticut, and wanted to study English and be a writer. She knew so little of the ways of the world that she didn’t have a sense of the difficulties and unlikeliness of doing that. Years later, when her second or third mystery was published, she said it was her college friend’s mother, who’d encouraged her to follow that path and know it was possible if she worked hard. She mentioned this mother for support and great parties. She always did all the cooking—for days—then had mixes of people— her husband’s professional colleagues, and friends, so that the gatherings were fun, not functions, and everyone looked forward to being invited and meeting the various other people. A young man, also from a background where he’d never encountered that sort of gala, recollected his first sight of enough strawberries. Again, years later, he reminisced about his first party there—his NYU professor, and friend of the hostess’s, had sent him to meet her, and there’d been a party, so he’d taken the subway to her suburban home at her immediate invitation. He’d felt awkward in his Harvard Graduate dorm, with posh roommates, who’d known everyone and everything, and, as he said, he’d only ever slept on the couch in his parents’ apartment. Being welcomed at that first party, he’d felt he belonged, he could function as his own best self and be a poet, critic, and teacher, now with a Pulitzer Prize. He met editors and writers, doctors and scientists, and he felt from the first strawberry that he’d be ok. The hostess never saw herself as a shepherd or leader; she liked parties, books, rare leg of lamb perfused with garlic, her own solitary writing; she liked people, whoever they were.
Here’s what else I know about the shepherds and sheep. The sheep instinctively find their own best ground, their path, their best resting place. The shepherd doesn’t drive them there, but follows patiently behind insuring their safety. The shepherd feeds the sheep, even at parties, even with strawberries, and insures they receive the nurture needed. Even though we connect the shepherd and sheep with lamb chops and leg of lamb, that’s not the shepherd’s role. I know too the shepherd isn’t a vapid, standing, pale man with limp Breck “no tears, no tangles” limp blond hair, holding a bright white, fuzzy lamb.
A shepherd is the most prevalent image of God in the Old Testament, and everyone knew that the shepherd always referred to God. “The Lord is my shepherd” was always a favorite identifying statement, and all Jews acknowledged that reality, metaphor, and imagery. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” all his hearers heard he was identifying himself with his Lord, as protector of the sheep. He knew as did his hearers that the sheep were not followers, but by nature, always went along their own best route, their own goals towards home, and it was the shepherd’s role to guarantee their security there. He revives their souls and guides them along right paths, and gives comfort, so that they know they’ll live in his house forever. The shepherd loves his charges, not just in word and speech, but in truth and action, so that they have boldness before God, as themselves.
A shepherd, unlike a cowboy, nurtures and encourages his flock from behind, from anonymity and watching. The shepherd’s only name is the one he teaches the sheep to know. (Shepherds accurately identify their own sheep, as sheep identify the voice of their own shepherd. “The sheep know him, and he knows his own.”) The good shepherd teaches so “his own should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” There are no cults of a great shepherd, but rather the growth, nurture, and security of the shepherd’s charges is the shepherd’s calling. Their leadership is by their work for their chosen flock, helping each member of the group as well as the group to flourish as their best selves.
Whether such service as a shepherd calls a person to international research and interaction, to the betterment of his own underprivileged group, or feeding people to nurture their intellect, hopes and person, shepherds, like Jesus, guard their charges to live in God’s house forever: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 29 April 2012, Boston