Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 12, 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year C (“Good Shepherd” Sunday)
My Friends: Our Gospel this morning is another vivid example of the adage that “the past is another country; they do things differently there.” Jesus’ image of himself as a “good shepherd” in Chapter 10 of Saint John’s Gospel would have struck his original audience as a contradiction in terms. Despite those bucolic portraits of meek and mild “shepherds in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” drawn from Saint Luke’s Gospel, shepherds were not highly esteemed by the locals of first-century Judea, Samaria, and Galilee’s towns and villages. And their ill-repute was richly earned: they often were “hirelings” who lived in the rough and by their wits. And they seldom owned the sheep they were paid to pasture. Whenever the locals knew that “the shepherds” were coming into the town for a night’s entertainment, they would shutter their windows and bolt their doors until the inevitable mayhem was over. An analogous situation from our own history might be the local reaction to gunslingers in the Wild West drinking at the local saloon: whenever they came into town, you just knew that trouble would not be far behind.
With this in mind, Jesus’ startling self-portrait in Saint John’s Gospel as a “Good Shepherd” must have immediately caught the attention of his Jewish audience. By contrast to the reality of many shepherds in their own time and locale, they would have recognized immediately that Jesus was claiming to be another sort of shepherd entirely, one already quite familiar to them from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms, that hymnal of the ancient Jerusalem Temple. Jesus was claiming, like the prophets, priests, and kings of Israel, to be the owner of a flock entrusted to him by his “Father,” the great “Shepherd of Israel” praised in this morning’s famous Psalm 23. And because he is the “owner” and not just another callous “hireling,” Jesus will never abandon the flock entrusted to his care and concern to the predations of “thieves and wolves.” As the incarnation of God’s steadfast, spousal love, faithfulness, and mercy toward God’s covenant people Israel, this “beloved” “Son of God” will even lay down his life if necessary for his sheep. And, in accord with the Jewish people’s divine vocation to be “a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” Jesus tells his Jewish audience in verse 16 of Chapter 10, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, you and I are those “other sheep” “grafted into” the people of God for whom Jesus Christ did “lay down [his] life” as well! Unlike so many false shepherds who are merely callous and self-promoting “hired hands,” Jesus does not “run away” when “thieves and wolves” come to “snatch” and “scatter” his fold. And how is this done? How does a “good shepherd,” the true owner of the sheep, protect his flock? He does it with his voice because sheep instinctively know and respond to the voice of their shepherd. In fact, they will only respond to the unique voice of their shepherd when he calls them together. Our task, then, is to “listen” for that voice of the “beloved son”; the same voice that calls from the Torah: “Listen, O Israel, the LORD is our God; the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and strength,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Well, as we know all too well, this deep listening for the voice of the “Good Shepherd” is much, much easier said than done, especially in our postmodern world with its cacophony of competing voices and truth claims. The “thieves and wolves” are prowling all around us, and there is no dearth of “hirelings” masquerading as true shepherds, especially among so many of the “hired hands” pretending to speak for God, the one and only “Shepherd of Israel” “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep.” How do we hear the divine summons and commission in a militantly secular society whose only “trinity” is materialism, skepticism, and moral relativism?
First, we might begin by remaining within shouting distance of the Church, where the voice of Jesus Christ, the “Word and Wisdom and Power of God,” the “Good Shepherd,” can still be heard, however faintly, amidst the din of our culture’s competing voices, truth-claims, and so-called narratives. It is right here, in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, that we are fed and nurtured by the Body and Blood of Christ himself, true “bread in the wilderness” and ballast amid the corrupted currents of this world. I know that I am going against the grain this morning, but I will say it nonetheless: There is no more important place for Christians of any age on a Sunday morning, the “Lord’s Day,” than the Church. For a Christian, this is the privileged place of intimate encounter with the living God in Christ Jesus, who is the answer to the question of every human life.
Second, in a culture of absolute self-reliance such as ours, which worships and adores autonomy above and beyond anyone or anything else, we must come to know that real freedom is always tethered to the truth and is in service to the good. When our founding leaders, for example, substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for John Locke’s “property” in his trinity of “life and liberty,” they were actually broadening the conventional definition of happiness beyond the material. “Happiness,” in the classical sense of the term, means “to know the truly good and to possess the ability to pursue it.” It’s the freedom for excellence and virtue. They were referring to a state of soul rather than a passing emotion or transient pleasure. For a Christian, the true and the good and the beautiful are found by following Jesus in his little “Way” of poverty, humility, justice, and love, and through a life of missionary discipleship and evangelism. Once again, I know that I am going against the grain in saying that this radical and costly discipleship will require us to adopt an attitude of “docility to the Holy Spirit” and to strive always “to think with the Church,” as Saint Ignatius of Loyola expressed it. This means that we must allow ourselves to be challenged by the teachings of the Church—especially its social teachings—in a culture of death, materialism, conspicuous consumption, and moral relativism in the developed world. To be a real Christian in the twenty-first century is a vocation to be profoundly counter-cultural, and that has never been an easy thing to do. As Christians, we must discern through our life of prayer and fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ the “golden mean” between mindless authoritarianism and valueless pluralism. Our Baptismal Covenant does not permit us to simply “let a hundred flowers blossom.”
Finally, in a confusing and dangerous world that often seems to be spiraling out of control, we Christians must never retreat into a private sphere of quietism or indifference to the extreme suffering of the world around us. The twentieth century was the most violent and brutal in human history, and this twenty-first is well on its way to exceeding the last. I don’t need to rehearse the entire catalog of extreme violence and misery besetting our world today; we know it only too well. It’s there in the news every day for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. When our every instinct is to run away like the “hired hand” in Saint John’s Gospel, the voice of our “Good Shepherd” is calling us to engage with these terrors instead. God has made us—Jews and Christians, God’s covenant people—God’s partners in the restoration and renewal of God’s still unfolding Creation. And again, I know that its goes against the grain of our place and times, but we are called to be Christ’s witnesses in the thick of the great, civilizational struggle now unfolding all around us. If we really and truly mean “Never Again,” then we absolutely must both remember and act upon Elie Wiesel’s constant warning over these seventy years since the Shoah—and in the face of near continuous genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—that “the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is indifference.”
Jesus Christ is our “Good Shepherd” who comes to us as the “beloved son” of our “Abba.” our “Father” in heaven. He is “the great Shepherd of the sheep” who has “anointed [our] head with oil” in holy Baptism, and who still “spreads a table before [us] in the presence of those who trouble [us]” at each and every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Because “The LORD is [our] shepherd, [we] lack nothing”; therefore, we have the strength and the courage to confront the “evil” all around us, even if it requires us—as it has for so many other Christians the world over in recent days and months—“to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Let us pray, then, for the grace to go against the grain of our culture’s prevailing ethos of skepticism, nihilism, and moral relativism; to seek ordered freedom by “thinking with the Church,” especially concerning its social teachings, and by rejecting the path of callousness and indifference to the suffering all around us. We can do all these things because we are indeed the “other sheep” of a “Good Shepherd,” Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.