Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Jeremiah sends a warning of doom to shepherds who neglect their flocks and allow them to scatter. But he went on to say that God will gather the remnant of the flock and send shepherds who will care for them. Mark’s Gospel continues from last week when the apostles rejoined Jesus. Jesus tells them to “come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” But when they went off in a boat the crowds followed them. Jesus took pity on the crowd “because they were like a sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
Scripture often uses the imagery of shepherds and sheep to talk about leadership and its responsibilities. Good shepherds are praised and bad (or lazy) preachers are criticized. And it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to look at these readings as pertaining only to clergy. It certainly lets the rest of us off the hook: after all it’s not our fault if we wander into danger. We should have been protected against our own actions.
Full disclosure, I have used these readings when I’ve belonged to a parish that I felt was going through the motions (and have given thought to writing a book titled The Seven Habits of Ineffective Churches). Suggestions made to energize the parish or fulfill an unmet need are sent to the pastor or parish council and are never heard from again. All the while they lament that people “just don’t want to go to church anymore.”
Today I’d like to expand the idea to see how we are all shepherds in different and sometimes subtle ways.
Most of us were baptized as infants and have no memory of the event, but our parents and godparents (and indeed all those gathered) promised to raise us in the faith and teach us about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They promised, in a sense, to shepherd us.
As we grew up we were shepherded by others: the priests at our church, certainly, but also by others. Many Catholics well remember attending Catholic school where we were taught either by nuns or laypersons and regardless of how we view those memories they shepherded us. Virtually all Christian denominations offer some form of religious education outside of public school (we Catholics call it CCD) where we were taught by others, often the friends and neighbors of our parents.
But at some point we began to recognize that we could affect the faith of others. Perhaps it was a peer when we talked that person out of doing something sinful or foolish. Or more. Years ago I was a seminarian and was assisting the Youth Minister at a local parish. At the time one of the high school students in the group raced bicycles. At the time I rode 20 miles back and forth to school and while I was far from fast, I enjoyed riding. On the weekends Brian and I would often ride together and talk. He was fascinated that I was interested in becoming a priest (because otherwise I appeared so normal) and we talked about that while riding. At the end of my year there he wrote me a letter. To my amazement he told me that when we met he thought of himself as an atheist and attended the youth group only because he didn’t want to explain his beliefs to his parents. But after our hours on the road he now looked at faith in a new light and understood that an intelligent person could also be a person of faith. Last I heard he was doing well at Stanford University. I say this not to blow my own horn, but to recognize that I had no idea of the affect I was having on his faith journey. Whatever he saw in me drew him to follow his faith.
That really happens. Nearly five years ago my friend Fr. Henry Rodriguez died and I miss him still. We worked together at San Diego Hospice and I was his mentor when he was new to hospice (by mentor I recognized it was my job to get out of his way and let him minister). I knew he was a holy and good priest and I knew that he came from a poor part of town but I didn’t know his whole story until I attended his funeral.
Henry was born in the barrio here in San Diego and by high school he dropped out and became a gang banger with little interest in his future. But when he began to work at a local hospital as an orderly things began to change. The nurses he met saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself and encouraged him to get his GED. After that they helped him get a college degree where he decided to become a priest. His intelligence was recognized and he was sent to Rome for his education and he was ordained in 1986. He had a bright future working in wealthy churches but he immediately returned to the barrio and ministered to those like himself. He also became a chaplain to the San Diego Police and one night, when we was already suffering from pneumonia, he learned that a local police officer died in the line of duty. After meeting with the officer’s family he opened his church to other police officers who needed to talk. When I spoke with him the next morning he sounded exhausted, weak, and out of breath. He died a few days later.
All the good he did, all the people he met, all the suffering he healed, would not have happened had it not been for the nurses at the hospital. They didn’t see themselves as shepherds and he certainly didn’t see himself as a sheep but that’s how it happened.
We all have the ability to be Fr. Henry, but we also all have the ability to shepherd him. We Christians have an amazing message of salvation and eternal life. And we have the ability to be Good Shepherds by reaching out to those who suffer. Or by riding a bicycle.