Today is our Parish Feast Day. We celebrate the unity that grounds the hope and trust we place in Jesus Our Shepherd : in Jesus and in one another. When the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd and follow, what better image of the feeling and awareness of belonging could we have? Well, here's one. And it asks the question is there ever greater unity, greater belonging than when a child looks at her/his parent with total love?
Maybe you saw the same news report I saw that tells this story. Several weeks ago a soldier, a Dad, was returning from Iraq after his tour of duty. His son is 6 years old and in First Grade. Seems that all the time Dad was in Iraq, his son made certain that he and his classmates kept in touch with him with letters, notes, and care packages. Well, Dad wanted to thank the class and surprise his son. So, instead of having his son come to see him when he got off the bus with all the other soldiers, Dad made sure his son was in class. Dad went to the classroom, cameras rolling and him all wired for sound, and he walked into First Grade. The camera focused on his Son and the boy was so full of amazement and instantaneous love that he ran from his desk into the arms of his Dad. And over the microphone on his Dad you heard sobs of such love. The boy showed such an immediate love and feeling of belonging when he ran to the open arms of his Dad. Is there ever greater unity, greater feeling of belonging, than
when a child looks at her/his parent with total love?
This is the gift we celebrate this morning with Kim and Jeff as we baptize Marissa Pamela. Our prayer is that she grows into that love for you through your love for her.
Unity is often declared in church settings as a result of agreement with dogmas and rules. Christian Unity seems to require a document all parties can sign, as if it's the result of some legal contract. But this is not the unity, the hope, the trust, the feeling of belonging that Jesus speaks of. Unity with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is a matter of hearing his voice and running into his open arms.
Lately, some churches want to be united so that they may exercise political power. How tired have we grown of hearing about the so-called values voter. Hasn't it become clear that you are a true and trusted values voter when you agree with my values? If you value being against abortion then you are a true Christian. If you value being against the death penalty then you are not a true Christian.
Gregory Boyd, a highly successful and widely respected pastor in the evangelical community has written a book called, "The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church." Boyd wants to tell other evangelical Christians that the unification of Christian with America is a lie that certain power-seeking evangelical leaders have been spreading among them. The sheep hear a voice that is not Jesus. It is not the open arms of the Good Shepherd.
When Jesus says in today's Gospel, "God and I are One," he is the shepherd who takes us one step further in our feeling of belonging. This is the ultimate step of living as Jesus lives, as Jesus speaks, as Jesus leads.
This divine unity reminds us that we must have hope that our human actions, like exercising political power or even a parent's teaching of their child, these actions can be used for good. We work through limitations in order that the Shepherd will lead us through to that good. This hope and trust feeds our sense of belonging in our families and in our church families. The son running to the open arms of his soldier Dad is both where we want to come from and where we want to go. Dad did not ask, "Did you follow Mom's rules while I was gone? Or Did you stay out of trouble?" He just said his son's name and opened his arms. I think it was Jesus who said in another place, "And if you, with all your sins, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will God take care of you?"
And isn't it interesting that this hope for belonging is sufficient for us to go on, to trust the Shepherd?
My fellow sheep, that's what's called Easter.
We hold great promise through accepting the One who is the Good Shepherd. The promise is that as Jesus describes himself as the one who leads, guides, loves, and sends out the sheep : so must we do also.
This picture, as endearing and deeply moving as it is, has its limits. As comfortable as it is to have One who takes care of all things, we must also assume the role of Shepherd in our own lives. To remain embraced and to stay docilely grazing in the meadow does not reflect a full picture of our life and the decisions we must make to live.
For that reason we must balance both this picture of being embraced and of embracing at the same time. Others would like to keep the sheep in the sheepfold and maintain the first picture at the expense of the second.
Much has been made over the past few weeks of the role of Pope as Shepherd. In a recent policy established by the Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop, he has reserved for himself the right to search the home of any priest who acts in an "inappropriate" manner. In the document announcing this policy the Archbishop refers to his role as shepherd of the diocese.
Well, at which point does the role of Shepherd become one for each one of us. I believe this occurs in a developmental way that increases our responsibility for both our lives and our own leadership. We are ultimately responsible for the moral acts and the life-impacting decisions of our lives. In this we shepherd our own lives.
This occurs, it seems to me in an organic way that understands noone, no community, and no institution is perfect. We have seen that Bishops can be wrong : especially when they seek to preserve an institution at the expense of the most vulnerable of their flock. Pope John Paul II acknowledged that over time the Church, acting through official leaders and structures, had been wrong, and had sinned : particularly in sins against the Jewish people.
When one reads Pope John Paul's encyclical, "Veritatis Splendor," one sees that he presents the definition of the moral life and its care as the primary responsibility of the leaders of the Church. This is an impressive document, worthy of reading for its systematic presentation of morality. It also reinforces the role of the Church leaders as moral leaders.
We may have difficulty, though, with a document that neglects the Church as God's People and not only the "mitred ones," the bishops. The Church is more than bishops, it is a living community.
While we pray for one another and for integrity in our individual and communal lives, we adopt the way of the Good Shepherd who included all. Keep in mind the picture of the Shepherd going after the one lost sheep. And recall the Shepherd who allows all the sheep to graze together. This may be the picture that official Roman Catholic Church leaders cannot abide. They reenforce the connection between strict adherence to their policies with sharing at the table of Eucharist. That is their choice. That is their belief.
While respecting such a choice and such a belief, one wonders whether that is the choice and belief of the Good Shepherd. After all He is the One who even shared the First Eucharist with the man who betrayed Him!
On this Good Shepherd Sunday we can take comfort in the picture of the all-embracing One who loves us. We should also take on the responsibility of shepherding our own lives and embracing : especially in our prayer together and in our sharing in Sacrament : all who seek and follow the Good Shepherd.