The Church gives us images and symbols that speak to us on our journey of faith. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there have been shepherds who have been called to serve the people of Israel. Moses was working as a shepherd, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, when the Angel of the Lord visited him and called him to the special task of bringing the people out of bondage in Egypt. Many generations after Moses, God sent the prophet Samuel to the household of Jesse where he would find the youth whom God had chosen to be king. After meeting all the older brothers, it was revealed to Samuel that the chosen king was a youth named David who was serving as a shepherd in the fields, caring for his father’s flock of sheep. And at almost every Catholic funeral, one of the readings we hear is the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. These images of shepherd inform our minds and our imaginations, they foreshadow the coming of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who is there to lead us and guide us.
Indeed, in the Gospel of John today, Jesus asserts that he is the good shepherd who will lay down his life for his sheep, who will gather them together and protect them. I think that Jesus as our Good Shepherd takes on a different tone today than maybe it did just a decade ago. We hear stories of martyrs throughout history, of Christians being condemned for their faith or having their voices silenced, but I think we hear in the United States always took our Christian faith for granted, especially in the light of the religious freedom that seemed to be the backbone of our society. Then we started to see our country starting to become more secularized. We started seeing our openly criticized and condemned. We are realizing that we can no longer take the freedom to practice our faith for granted. We hear stories about Christians being martyred for their faith in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. How does Jesus the Good Shepherd speak to us in this new reality that we are facing?
Just as the image of the Good Shepherd tells a story in the midst of the reality we face as modern Christians, the stole I am wearing tells a story as well. Back in 1973, the democratically elected government in the country of Chile was overthrown by a military coup under General Augusto Pinochet. People were arrested and tortured and even murdered by the governmental authorities, and those who saw these things happening were afraid to speak out. A group of women approach the Vicariate of Solidarity, a special office of the Catholic Church that was set up to help the people in these difficult times. The ladies developed a new art form called the arpillera, which took small pieces of fabric and that told the story of what was going on in their country. They shipped these arpilleras throughout the world in order to tell their story and to alert others what was going on. Everyone has a story, and from these bright colored panels depicting different events in Jesus’ life on my stole, you would never know the history behind it. These ladies never gave up hope. They never gave up faith. They saw Jesus leading them and guiding them as their Good Shepherd, leading them to reach out to others and to speak out against the injustices they saw.
Today, as we hear these stories of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The Church has been celebrating this day of prayer for more than 50 years. As we think about vocations today in the context of Jesus as the Good Shepherd leading us and guiding us, as the one who laid down his life for us, the flock he shepherds, we think of the need we have for shepherds and leaders in our faith. This weekend, I am celebrating three baptisms of infants and young children who are receiving the sacrament of initiation of our faith. We celebrated the First Holy Communion of 34 children who are receiving Jesus in that special way for the time in their lives. And this morning, in our 10:30 mass, we are celebrating the awarding of the Eagle Scout honor to Tripp Toole, a youth was is a parishioner here at St James and a member of our parish’s Boy Scout troop. These are all moments in our lives where Christ is present to us in a special way. And they are all moments that point to the vocation that Christ calls us to as well. Without Jesus as our Good Shepherd, without a relationship with him, we will never hear his voice calling out to us. There are probably some members in our parish whom God is calling to become priests or deacons or consecrated members of a religious community. There may be some whom God is calling to be lay leaders and lay ministers. Whatever our vocation in life, we need to hear where Jesus is calling us in the context of that vocation.
How is Jesus our Good Shepherd? And what different does that make in our lives? Those are good questions for us to ponder on Good Shepherd Sunday.