As many of you know I worked on a hog farm growing up. But one summer the owners got tired of mowing the lawn so they bought sheep. They put up a fence. And then they threw a horse in the pen with the sheep. Well that horse became the shepherd for those sheep. Wherever it went, the sheep went. They looked to it for protection. They even slept right next to it.
Now you never know what you get to do on a farm. And one morning the boss told me that it was time to castrate the sheep. Kids if you don’t know what that is you can ask your parents later. So I went into the pen to try and catch the sheep. But it was near impossible. That horse started running, and so did the sheep, and it was over. The sheep never stopped following that darn horse. I couldn’t catch one. Finally I came to my senses. I brought the horse in close with feed. The sheep followed. I tied up the horse so it couldn’t move. The sheep stayed near it. And I was able to catch the sheep and do my duty—whether the sheep liked it or not. I learned that sheep will always follow the shepherd’s lead, no matter if it is good or bad for them.
The image of the shepherd and the sheep is a very common one used throughout the bible. It often describes the relationship between a religious leader and his or her followers. It is not saying that people are dumb for blindly following a leader. It is that people desire to have good spiritual leadership. People want to be led and fed spiritually, and will take the lead from others whom they think are their shepherds. When shepherds are good it is an amazing. But what happens when you get bad shepherds?
Today’s gospel was written just before the turn of the first century. The Christians were experiencing bad shepherds. The Jewish leaders of the synagogue were tired of the Christians because they keep saying that Jesus was God. And well, he was. But for some of the Jewish leaders this was too much to take. So they started throwing the Christians out of the synagogue. Imagine the shepherds throwing the sheep out of the pen to fend for themselves. In doing so the Christians were no longer protected from abstaining from public worship to the emperor. Those who didn’t suffered serious persecution. This was a terrible problem for the early Christians. It cost Christians their lives.
This is obviously a bad example of how a shepherd should treat the sheep. But what can be said of our shepherds here? We all know that the pastor of our church is a very important person. We also know that the same goes for the associate and the religious brothers and sisters that are here. And heaven forbid that we would be such bad shepherds so as to act in any way that would throw people out of the church: either directly or indirectly. But one thing we all know is that the church isn’t just us. It is all of you, too. Each of you is called to be shepherds in your own way. Each of you will be able to reach people that we would never be able to. Each of you has relationships with folks that are very special that keep us united together. But there is a question worth asking: In what way do we all sometimes throw people out of the church? In what way, do we all act as bad shepherds who are thieves and robbers and leave the sheep fending for themselves?
I would say the first way we act as bad shepherds is by throwing ourselves out. Yeah that seems weird. But we throw ourselves out. This can be seen in people who feel they have committed sins that simply could never be forgiven, and they remove themselves from the flock. This can happen when shame invades peoples and they think they do not have a right to be around others. But this can also happen when our practice as Catholics becomes lax. We say we are Catholic but we really don’t show it in the life we live. This can be even more dangerous, because this can also be an indirect way of kicking others out: they see lax examples of us as Catholics and they think it really isn’t necessary for one to be part of our group. But Jesus is the good shepherd. And he says to us:
Come back to me. I never grow tired of forgiving your sins. Nothing you have done can keep you separated from me if you only ask for forgiveness. I desire to offer you mercy and compassion. Come to me. Return to me that you may have life and have it more abundantly. There is always a chance to come back.
I think we also throw others out by not being sensitive enough to the complexities of the faith journey. The journey of faith is complicated. We are all searching and trying hard to find this God who loves us. But we as shepherds kick sheep out of the flock by not being sensitive to each person’s journey. In a way we try to force others into the faith. This comes across in harsh judgments. This comes across in not respecting another person’s freedom. This comes across in proselytization and rather than dialogue. This comes across in forgetting that God is the one who is ultimately responsible for each person’s faith. In these moments we need to turn to the good shepherd to hear his voice.
He says to us: listen to the stories that people carry. Pray for them. Sit with them. Wait patiently. The right time will show itself when you can help someone back to the flock. Try to hold off on judgments. Remember the times you too have misunderstood your faith. Remember the times when you too have strayed. Approach them with humility and gentleness. Trust that I am the one caring for the sheep. Help me by loving them into life.
Finally, I think we throw others out by forgetting that we must always be missionary. The most dangerous thing for a church is when the people start saying: this is how things have always been done. This happens when the church turns in on itself rather than turns out on the world all around them. When this happens, we will have to listen to the voice of the good shepherd.
He says: Never forget the missionary beginnings that you have had. Look to the poor. Look to those who do not believe. Find ways to reach out to them. You have been given a gift; now share it with the world. Things may have always been done that way, but it is time for a change. It is always time to open the doors and let in new life.
Peter our first pope was a good shepherd. We heard today that he baptized 3000 people with just one speech. Let us be good shepherds, not removing people from the flock, but welcoming them, and ourselves, back to the fold. We might be able to one day tell Saint Peter: 3000 was nothing. Listen to what we did back in Maynardville and Rutledge.