Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Deacon Gunther - Good Shepherd Sunday
A mother was once asked by a census taker... “How many children do you have?” She replied “Well there’s Billy and Harry and Martha and ...” “Never mind the names” the man interrupted, “Just give me the numbers”. The mother angrily replied, “They don’t have numbers; they all have names!”
Just like this mother, God knows each and every one of us personally by our names. To God, we are not numbers.
So too a shepherd knows each one of the sheep in his flock. The parable of the Good Shepherd and his sheep is a reference to God’s intimate knowledge of all of us. A Good Shepherd looks after his flock and knows his individual sheep.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter which is traditionally referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. In the well-known 23rd Psalm we start to hear the theme of Jesus as a Shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd ... I shall not want”. This psalm captures the longing for God’s love and protection that we all crave for. The psalm nicely links right into the Gospel message where Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and refers to himself as the gate for the sheep. While the Pharisees do not understand his figure of speech, we get his message ... that Christ is our way and our salvation. That we hear his voice and enter through the gate of Christ.
The challenge at times is to determine which voice to follow. The sheep follow their master because they recognize his voice. But how do we recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd? To hear the voice of our Lord requires practice. We practice being aware of living in God’s presence by listening in prayer, immersing ourselves in the Scriptures and identifying our story in those stories, knowing him when participating in communion, and seeing him in the poor and in the needy.
How a shepherd performs his job could mean the difference between life and death for the flock.
Did you know that Shepherds carry young lambs over their shoulders with their heads close to the shepherds’ mouths so the lambs learn the shepherd’s voice? They use rods to protect their flock from predators. With their crooked staff, they pull down branches so the sheep can reach the food. They nudge newborns toward their mothers. They perform rescue operations. They guide their sheep on the right path.
Christ our shepherd says that those who are his know his voice. We should take the time each day in prayer to listen for God’s voice. And carefully notice what other voices in our life may compete with his. So how can we distinguish the shepherds who truly walk with God from imposters? The person who is a genuine teacher of the ways of God will display the same qualities Jesus did. They will show love for others they will forgive they will be patient and they will humbly serve and never focus on themselves.
We know that Jesus cares deeply for those whom he calls. Even to the point of laying down his life for them. Which he did. Those who are truly his own will be on the same wavelength. They will recognize his teachings and respond with faith. They will recognize him as the one sent from God because he walks in God’s ways and he encourages rather than condemns. He teaches and practices love forgiveness, and patience.
Now sheep are not very smart. They tend to wander off. They need their shepherds to make it safely through the day. Isn’t it true that sometimes we need this kind of help as well? Aren’t we humans vulnerable to the wolves of life? Vulnerable to death, disease, temptation, and to injury? If we try to lead our own lives with no help from the shepherd, we can end up lost and then looking to be found again. So, we put our trust in the Lord. Trust is the basis for all shepherding. The sheep come to know and trust the shepherd. They recognize only his voice and move toward him.
That same trust and comfort are ours if we listen attentively to the voice of Jesus in our everyday lives. As I have learned through years of ministering to the inmates at the detention centre, I was unable to help any of them until they began to trust me. They needed to trust that I was there because I cared about them. Not because of any power or control I had over them, or because of any rewards or incentives coming my way. When they first met with me they watched me very closely to see what I did, how I acted towards them. Was ... I ... showing understanding, compassion, and love? Only after I had earned their trust did I become a good shepherd, ministering to them. Guiding them towards a better path.
Jesus knows how much we all need good, loving and wise shepherds so that we can grow both physically and spiritually. He has promised to be with us every day of our earthly existence. We are reminded of his sacrifice for us every time we celebrate the Eucharist at this table. During the Eucharistic Prayer, listen closely to his words when Fr. Paul says ... “Take this all of you and eat of it for this is my body which will be given up for you.”
Not only does Jesus reveal himself as the Good Shepherd, but each one of us is called by name. Each one of us is tasked to be like Jesus to be a good shepherd, to be a servant to others.
Today, appropriately is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We Christians are invited to reflect on the meaning of God’s call and to pray for vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, and lay ministry. We pray for all men and women who have been called by name and have responded. It is important that we all support and pray for our seminarians and deacons and religious who are still in formation to become our future shepherds.
I would like to pray for you one of the vocation prayers that the members of the Serra Club of St. Catharines pray at each of their meetings: “O God, who has chosen the apostles to propagate the faith and to establish your Holy Church throughout the world, we earnestly ask you to choose from the people in the Diocese of St. Catharines many priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers who gladly spend their entire lives in making you known and loved by all, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
My friends, this might be a good time to reflect on who has been a good shepherd to you in your own faith journey. Or to whom are you being a good shepherd right now?
Not all of us are called to be clergy or religious. But we can all try to be a good shepherds like Jesus. Volunteering to serve in any one of our many parishes' lay ministries or activities can be a wonderful way to share your love of God, your love of others, and your desire to follow Christ.
May God bless you!