I admit it. In my heart of hearts, I am a rebel. I don't like it when church leaders call themselves shepherds and call us "flocks." It gives me the impression that church leaders think we are mindless people, to be rewarded when we follow them, to be punished, even excommunicated, when we don't. For me there is only one shepherd worth listening to and one worth following: the Good Shepherd of today's Gospel, Jesus Christ. This Sunday is known as "Good Shepherd Sunday." It is our parish feast day, the feast of Jesus Our Shepherd! He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. False shepherds don't do that; they're more concerned about their careers and reputations, and they insist that obedience, not love, is the hallmark of church membership. The Good Shepherd lives a simple life with his sheep. False shepherds often live lifestyles of the rich and famous, isolated from the people they like to call their flock. The Good Shepherd speaks truth to power. False shepherds are the power and don't like to hear the truth spoken to them. The Good Shepherd encourages us to follow our hearts, our conscience, because it is in our hearts that the Good Shepherd's voice is heard. False shepherds tell us to disregard our hearts because church rules and Canon Law are their preferred standards of right and wrong. Good Shepherd? False shepherds? To whom do we listen?
Here's a true story about the King of Denmark, a man who listened to his heart. During World War II the Nazi army was moving quickly through Europe. The Danish people could offer little military resistance and were soon overwhelmed. Adolf Hitler then ordered Denmark's king to issue a decree that all Jews living in Denmark must publicly identify themselves by wearing a yellow armband with the Star of David on it. The king knew that anyone so identified would be rounded up and marched off to death camps. But he also knew the danger to his people if he disobeyed Hitler's order. So on the day he issued the decree that Hitler demanded, the king stood in public wearing a yellow armband with the Star of David, even though he was not Jewish. Watching their king, the Danish people knew exactly what to do. The next day, everybody in Denmark : Jew and gentile alike : wore the armband. Their courage and solidarity with the persecuted Jews saved many lives.
Following the Good Shepherd's voice in our hearts demands courage and sacrifice. It doesn't come easy. Listening to that voice, we are called upon to honor our commitments, avoid rash judgments, love and support folks we never thought we could or would. We may not wear a yellow armband with a Star of David, but we can be peacemakers, wear a rainbow sash and protest injustices wherever we find them : in the world, in our neighborhoods, even in our churches.
If we really pray, reflect and listen to the Good Shepherd speaking to us in our hearts, we can no longer be who we once were, no longer think as we once thought. Why? Because Jesus is the all-inclusive peacemaker and justice-seeker, so following him is eye opening, mind-expanding, gutsy stuff : holy stuff. The Good Shepherd is speaking to us today and every day! How well are we listening?