Shepherds or Sheep?

Homily for May 7, 2017 (4th Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

Have you seen a shepherd lately?  If you’re thinking of a rustic-looking guy with a staff leading or chasing after a flock of sheep, then the answer is probably “No.”  There are a lot of interesting characters and people with unusual jobs in Chicago, but shepherds as we’ve traditionally conceived aren’t among them.

The reality, however, is that there are shepherds all around us.  In fact, many of us gathered in church today are shepherds. Priests, of course, are shepherds.  Indeed, the Latin and Spanish word for shepherd is pastor.  You may not realize it, but if you’re a parent, teacher, catechist, employer, supervisor, coach, cop, big brother or sister then you’re a shepherd, too.  Anyone who is entrusted with the care and guidance of others can be considered a kind of shepherd.

Today our scriptures offer some wonderful models for shepherding, beginning with Jesus in the gospel.  Indeed, he describes himself as both the shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold.  In his time the sheepfold was likely a pen surrounded by a low wall designed to keep out wolves, poachers and other predators.  Sometimes the shepherd would even sleep at the entrance to provide another layer of protection.  A good shepherd, Jesus points out, knows his sheep well:  he calls them by name and they know his voice.  He walks ahead of them and keeps them safe.

Similarly, Psalm 23 tells us that a shepherd provides for the needs of those entrusted to his (her) care, walks with them through dark times, and uses his rod and staff to protect, guide and discipline them.  Last Sunday the Chicago Tribune had a front page story on some ex-gang members, men who had survived life on the streets and in the criminal justice system, who had returned to their neighborhoods to act as shepherds for the young men there who are in danger of being lost to violence.  They visit homes, go to neighborhood hotspots, and attend funerals.  They talk, pray, challenge and encourage.  They share their own stories both as a warning and as a sign of hope.

Just as many of us are shepherds, all of us are sheep.  It’s not a very appealing image.  After all, sheep are smelly; they can follow others seemingly mindlessly or get distracted and stray away; they can be stubborn, vulnerable and well, stupid; they are raised to give of themselves and their lives for others (think wool and lamb chops).

If we look more closely and honestly at our lives, however, we can probably recognize that we’re more like sheep than we might care to admit.  Even if we’re not smelly, we can be willful and go against God’s desires for us.  We can do dumb things.  We can follow the crowd without really thinking.  We are called to offer ourselves for the sake of others.  God wants us to be good sheep as well as good shepherds; and God gave us his Son to show us how—so that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.” +