“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” G. K. Chesterton

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shepherds and Sheep

A Sermon for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  Delivered by Fr. Mark Lewis, St. Luke's Ordinariate Catholic Church, Bladensburg Maryland on July 22, 2012.  St. Luke's is a Church in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, established by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to bring former Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church.

In our Gospel story today the twelve apostles return to Jesus after being sent out by Him on their first missionary trip. Jesus takes His disciples into a secluded area for rest and refreshment, but there was no seclusion to be found.  The crowds followed and in some cases were already at the place where Jesus was taking His disciples. The Scripture tells us when Jesus saw the crowds, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” I will come back to disciples later in the sermon, but for now I want to focus on Jesus’ compassion on the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

In ancient Israel, as in other ancient cultures of the Near East, the figures of king and shepherd were closely associated. The Hebrew word for shepherd also means “to rule.” Thus the ancient image of a king/shepherd is one who protects, provides and rules, (governs).  A shepherd of a flock was to protect the flock from danger and provide for the flock; this included feeding them in green pastures. Therefore a king of Israel or Judah, a king of God’s people was to protect, provide and rule His people according to His command.

In our first reading today, Jeremiah is prophesying around the end of the reign of King Zedekiah just before the final captivity in 587BC.  Jeremiah is looking back over the recent history of the reign of  the Kings of Judah and condemns them as shepherds who have misguided their flock. Jeremiah prophesied: “ ‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings.’ ” Thus unfaithful kings/shepherds lead to a flock without a shepherd-the flock is left on its own. 

We find elsewhere in Scripture the imagery of sheep without a shepherd. In the 27th chapter of the book Numbers we read of Moses interceding on behalf of the Hebrew people. As we all know, Moses was not allowed to enter the promise land with his people; therefore he prayed, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh appoint a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd.” The Lord answered his prayers and appointed Joshua.

Ezekiel prophesied in the 34th chapter, “The word of the Lord came to me. Son of man, prophesy, and say to them even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not round up, the strayed you have  not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and hardness you have ruled them. So, they were scattered because there was not a shepherd and they became food for all the wild beast.”

Through these Scripture readings we can clearly see God’s plan for the men He appoints as a shepherd. They are to protect, provide, and rule His people; not by force or hardness, but in love, teaching and guiding the flock to holiness-- to God.

God continues to call men to be shepherds. Our Holy Father is the chief shepherd of the Church. Bishops are called to be shepherds; priests are called to be shepherds; and we have the same calling as did the shepherds of old: to protect the flock, to provide for them, (feeding them), and to rule them (guiding them and teaching them). The Church has teachings on all matters of faith and morals that shepherds are to teach to their flock. There are some shepherds who may believe, or worse teach others, that the Church is out of step with society. Therefore, they do not strongly encourage the flock in their care to conform their lives to all the teachings of the Church.  Such a shepherd is placing his thoughts and beliefs above those of the Church and thus places his flock in danger. Without a strong shepherd the flock will stray out of the Promised Land and into the wilderness. In other words, without the strong guidance of a shepherd leading his flock, the flock will stray into sin, and not just stray but begin to question, doubt, and then reject the teachings of the Church. Thus the words of the prophet Ezekiel hold true today, “They were scattered because there was not a shepherd and they became food for all the wild beast.”  That wild beast is none other than the evil one. Shepherds are called not to lead the flock as they see fit, but rather as God has commanded. As a shepherd of God’s people I am to reflect Him and bring the flock to Him by the means He has set forth.

Now I must say a word about the flock.  The flock must be willing to submit to the guidance of the shepherd.  I am certain we have all heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” The same is true of you; but we might say, “You can lead a sheep in the way to the pearly gates, but you cannot make him enter.” You can have a strong shepherd teaching all that the Church teaches, and strongly encouraging in love that you conform your lives to her teachings, but you must be willing to obey and conform. You must conform your mind, heart, and life to the teachings of the Church.  Otherwise you will be choosing to walk away from the protection of the shepherd, where instead of being fed you become feed for another. Do not allow yourselves to be swayed by the by the whims of society, even when, as it is now, unpopular to walk in the light of Christ.

Shepherd and sheep do well to follow Jesus, laying aside personal beliefs that may differ from that of the Church. For in Jesus, our perfect King and Shepherd we are truly protected and fed when we willingly submit to His rule; in doing so we participate in His life and ministry.

In the Ezekiel reading I mentioned earlier the Lord said, “You do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not round up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and hardness you have ruled them.”

And that brings us back to our Gospel lesson. Last week we read that Jesus sent His disciples out to participate in His ministry, to overcome the works of the evil one: feed the sheep, strengthen the weak, heal the sick, round up the crippled, and to do so in love, the same love with which Jesus loved them. Now they return and cannot wait to share with the Good Shepherd all that they had done and taught. Of course their mission was successful--Jesus sent them. He was with them. He had charged them. By participating in His life their mission could not fail. The same holds true for you and me. We cannot fail if we remain true to Him and His Church. We may experience hardships, loss, and even persecution, but we will know the peace and joy of participating in the life of Jesus.

You and I are called to be both a shepherd and a sheep. I am your shepherd, and I am a sheep of my superiors. You are my sheep, but you too have been called to be a shepherd: husbands to wives, parents to children, brothers to sisters and vise-a-versa. We are to be leading all God’s people to holiness; that is accomplished in and through His Church. Jeremiah prophesied, “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king.” Jesus is the righteous Branch, and we encounter that righteous Branch in His Church. We cannot live in Him or participate in His life by being an offshoot that is broken away from the Branch or is just barely hanging on. Both shepherd and sheep must be obedient to the Good Shepherd’s voice. His voice, through the faithful shepherds of His Church will lead us to green pastures, where He will protect, provide, and rule His kingdom for eternity.

Come, let us listen to the voice of our Lord, the Shepherd, for He is calling us and His Church to holiness.

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