Meeting Jesus – Week 1

I am the good shepherd, and 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.
– John 10:14-15

My Dear Friends in Christ,

I LOVE THAT VIDEO! Have you ever struggled for a long time with the details of something complex only to have a simple illustration break it open for you? That’s the way I felt when I first saw this video. I’ve long thought about what it means for Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The shepherd was completely responsible for the sheep: feeding them, leading them, breeding them, keeping them close, protecting them, herding them, even sleeping near them to keep them safe at night; not an easy job and one requiring constant effort.

Along with that, sheep are notoriously dumb animals. They lack any true independence and require help for even the most basic of things, especially over the long run. For example, left to their own devices in a field of grass, the sheep will continue to overeat until the grass is decimated. Then, eventually the sheep will starve because they do not have the capability to understand that there is nothing left to eat and move to another field, even close by, to get food.

I knew all of that, but this video shows something more because it shows a sheep being… well… a sheep. The young shepherd struggling so hard to free the sheep, hearing the sheep’s cry as it got stuck, following the cries for help, helping the sheep out of that fix, protect the sheep from danger. And then boom, right back into it. A sheep isn’t gracious enough to stop and thank the shepherd boy for the effort of pulling him out. A sheep is not coherent enough to take stock and stay far away from the ditch. A sheep isn’t smart enough to gauge the distance of the jump or the width of the ditch. A sheep isn’t wise enough to learn from mistakes of the (even immediate) past. How exasperated the little shepherd boy must have felt.

Something more was nagging at me, though. I couldn’t escape the realization that I am more like the sheep, in that video and otherwise, than I realized or like to admit (let alone care to mention!). I may not be as dumb as a sheep but there are so many times I’m not as smart as I think I am or as I need to be. So often, I find myself in a tight space, a space created by my own stupidity or, more often, my carelessness, my hardheartedness, my unwillingness to listen, my refusal to be humble or admit when I’m wrong.

And God has to work so hard to help me get out of it. Not necessarily pulling my leg (pun intended!) but God has to fight my stubbornness, anger, pride, fear, confusion, and doubt when I get wedged into the ditch of my own unfaithfulness, or lack of trust, or inability to see Christ in another (especially one who challenges me), or becoming too comfortable and just calling “it.” And God tugs and yanks and pulls me free and then I go and jump right back into it, that same space or another one just down the road. Yes, I am far more like that sheep than I care to admit.

But Jesus knows that about me and still claims me as His own, still calls my name, still follows me when I wander, still pulls me out of the ditch, still brings me gently back, still carries me on His shoulders, still rejoices in my being close. Jesus recognizes well that it is the shepherd who does the work, who makes the sacrifice, who commits to the sheep.

And Jesus willingly takes that on, takes US on! Sheep don’t have to get their act together before they approach the shepherd; they don’t have to clean things up or make things right. Sheep need only to learn and know and listen for the voice of their shepherd. Jesus understands this well and shares with us His gentle voice, which allows us to remain close to Him and to the rest of the fold, allows us to be drawn back, helps us to come back, to be led home, to be carried home.

This doesn’t mean that we do nothing and expect God to do everything for us. It does simplify what we need to do, boils what we need to do down to one thing: we need to learn His voice. Jesus wants us to understand how close God seeks to be, how involved God can be in our lives if we allow such involvement, how much God loves us and continues to look out for us – even when it’s only been about 2 minutes since God pulled us out from the last ditch. Jesus wants us to know that God is not distant nor reserved only for the big things in life, the major hurdles or liminal challenges. When we train ourselves to learn and listen for and hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, we can experience the love and concern of God for us, in the most basic of ways and in the most mundane elements of our lives.

Let me get practical for a moment. It’s easy to say that we should know the voice of
our Good Shepherd, but it’s not as easy to understand what that means. Certain things are essential to train the ear of your heart to listen for the Good Shepherd, to recognize and know and follow His voice. Let me list them for you. Not one of these can be ignored if we truly want to hear and know His voice.

  1. Reading Scripture, especially the Gospels. These are the words of God and of our Good Shepherd. The Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are a love note from God, from our Good Shepherd. Saint Jerome said, “Ignorance of scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” If we are not grounded in Scripture, we will easily be led astray by other shepherds

    It doesn’t have to be ponderous. Reflect on a few lines every day, not as an intellectual exercise to study the Bible or a drill to build perseverance in getting through. You don’t even have read any more. You can listen to the scriptures. You can get the Bible on Kindle or listen to it on podcast. Father Mike Schmitz with Ascension Press has an excellent FREE podcast: Bible in One Year. He reads a few lines and then helps to break it open by offering some insights. There are other similar items as well utilizing technology. Listen in your car on the way to work (if you still have a commute.)
  1. Study what God has given us in the long and rich tradition of the Church. The teachings of the Church are important resources in conjunction with scripture. So many of the resources are available online and there are great resources about the teachings of the Church and the important truths of our faith.

    Too often we let the media tell us what and why the Church teaches as She does. Or we limit the Church’s teachings by letting someone else push an agenda or focus only on a particular aspect of the faith. So often in our culture and the news we see only one perspective or a single answer to an open question, especially in the hot button issues of today. We need to look at the
    fullness of the Church’s teachings so that we can encounter Christ through them, that we can hear the voice of our Good 
    Shepherd guiding us, rather than a particular person or group offering only part of the message.

    Again, technology helps. So much is available online and free of charge. Recently I noticed one of our young people who seemed to be alive with his faith, excited by the sacraments, eager to be involved and do more. I asked him what brought about this noticeable change. And he said, “Father, have you ever heard of Bishop Robert Barron? I watched one of his videos and it got me to thinking.  Then I watched another one and another and another. It was all so interesting. I learned about our Church, my faith and Jesus Christ.” I was impressed not only with his willingness to pursue his faith but also the way that faith took root in a remarkable way in his life.
  1. Reflect on what you are hearing and learning in quiet prayer.We need to clear our heads to hear God’s voice among the other voices so prevalent in our world and in our hearts as well. We need to be attentive to and intentional about closing out the negative, even toxic voices to allow God’s voice to ring true to sound loudly.

    We spent Lent and the beginning of the Easter Season reflecting on prayer and what it is and what it isn’t, on what it means and what it doesn’t. To learn, listen for and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, we must give Christ time and space in our hearts and lives, talking to and listening for God.
  1. Worship publicly (even if it has to be from home for now.) Dive into the Mass and into the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We just celebrated the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist for the first time with a number of our young people. What a grace it is for me to see these sacraments through their eyes: the excitement, the anxious nervousness, the joy and the hard work.

    I love watching them come to the sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time, some so scared they can barely speak or walk. But as we go through the sacrament, they learn an important dimension of Reconciliation.  It is far more about God’s mercy and forgiveness than it is about my sins.  And I love to see them almost swagger out, having conquered their fear AND experienced God’s mercy. It’s a lesson I hope they remember throughout life.

    And then I love to see them come to First Holy Communion, all dressed up, more excited than nervous now.  But it’s not only about the outfits for them.  They have prepared and practiced , studied and pondered (yes even second graders!). All of that together helps them to realize that this is something important. Sadly, I often take Jesus for granteds.
  1. Serve others. Giving of time, talent and treasure is sometimes the only way I can get outside of my own head, move beyond my own struggles. To focus on serving the other, on giving to the other, necessitates moving beyond myself and, many times, my comfort zone.

    More than that, being with others allows me to see and to hear Christ, especially in the poor and those who suffer, also in the angry and the challenging.  Sometimes I have to struggle a great deal to be aware like this and, sadly, too often I fail.  Sometimes, truth be told, I also fail at times even to try. But when I serve, when I focus on giving to the other, I can hear the voice of Good Shepherd.

Drawing me closer to Christ and allowing Christ to work in and through me is the focus of our new message series. We’re calling it “Meeting Jesus,” because, as with today, Jesus uses different images to describe Himself and our relationship with Him. Through these images, Jesus seeks to welcome us (and allow us to welcome Him), to encounter us (and to allow us to encounter Him), to accompany us (and to allow us to accompany Him) and transform us (and allow us to transform others). Each of these images establishes a relationship where God sacrifices on our behalf, to offer us grace.

I must admit that I struggled with this blog because I wondered if this was addressing something miniscule when so much is going in our world, and indeed, our pastorate. I was struck by the verdict handed down in the trial of former police office Derek Chauvin. It offered accountability in that case, but it is only a beginning to address the many challenges of racism, authority, brutality and violence. I was struck by the number of police officers who rallied around the decision and calls for study, investigation and reform. I was struck by the need to pray for police officers who have been tarred and painted with the same brush. I feel a certain kinship with them because of the analogous situation that happened to priests.

But we must also still pray for change in a system that can allow some of these things to continue even as we pray for changes in the church that allowed the abuse crisis to grow and ferment. I was struck by the challenge still going on at the southern border, children and families still suffering. I was struck by the callous dismissal of and disregard for the sanctity of life, whether it be the harm done to the immigrant child or the increased testing on unborn children and fetal tissue. I was struck by the discrepancy in how we as Americans face the pandemic and how the rest of the world, especially poor and developing nations that are not able to draw on the same resources.  I was struck by the Earth Day preparations, celebrations and the refusal of so many to heed our Holy Father’s call to take care of our earth.

Yes, there is certainly a great deal to preach about and to challenge and to console and to share. But I cannot do any of that, if I am a sheep led astray by another’s voice, or by my own comfort, principles or safety. I cannot do that only from the grazing ground of even my own soap box, my opinion or way of seeing the world and the other. I can only truly do that if I am Christ’s sheep, if I know and hear and follow HIS voice, if I allow Christ to guide me and use me as part of his fold, to be responsible for and with the other sheep, not because I have an axe to grind, a problem to solve, a challenge to face, a roadblock to get around or a hurdle to overcome. No. I can only truly care, serve and advocate for others if I understand them as a fellow sheep and a valued part of the herd. As part of the herd, we are called, no less than those early disciples to go out and share this Good News.

It’s why the Church in the United States focused on this Sunday as vocation Sunday, calling to pray for and with our young people and their families that they may know and be open to God and the delight God takes in them and the plans God has for them.  Please pray for our seminarians and for the work and ministry of Father Steven Roth, our Vocation Director who was so very generous in coming out to celebrate Mass for us when I was away.  It’s also the perfect time to announce that the Archbishop has honored us by assigning Michael Moore, a seminarian for the Archdiocese studying at Pope Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C. Michael is in the college program and is finishing up his junior year at the Catholic University of America.  Michael will be with us only for about 6 – 8 weeks this summer to soak in parish and pastorate life.  It will be a blessing to have him in the parish and at the rectory.  More to come!

One additional thought about this gospel and Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus makes clear in this gospel that ALL sheep are his. A shepherd had his given fold, and the sheep were branded as being part of that fold. We were branded in Baptism as belonging to God’s fold, participating in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, sharing in the Mission to bring the love of God. Jesus references this expressly as He speaks about “mine” and His willingness to lay down His life. But Jesus also goes on to express that those who are not of the fold, who are not branded, who would not necessarily consider themselves as belonging, are still members of His flock. We are a nation and a world struggling with the pandemic, with vitriol and bitterness marking so much of our society, with the scourges of poverty, racism, violence, with the lack of understanding of respect for the other even and especially the weakest and most vulnerable: the unborn child, the prisoner on death row, the sick and the elderly, the immigrant.

These are not problems to be solved, challenges to be faced, hurdles to be overcome. These are the sheep of God’s flock. Doesn’t matter the race, color, class, or creed; Doesn’t matter the stage of life: whether preborn, infant, adolescent, adult or elderly; Doesn’t matter gender, gender identity, or orientation; Doesn’t matter the health or sickness, whether young healthy and vibrant or sickly, elderly, and dying; Doesn’t matter the rank, station, prestige, eminence or significance, reputation, or political affiliation; Doesn’t matter the income, bank account, living condition or job situation; Doesn’t matter the citizenship or legal standing

All of these, each of these, are sheep, with a dignity given by God in whose image and likeness each is created. God wants all of these. Jesus seeks to shepherd each of these. No one is excluded, no one is alone. There is no us and them.  There is only us. Jesus said it himself: There is only one flock and one shepherd. Thank God Jesus also added “I am the good shepherd… and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”

Peace,

 

 

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