Sunday, April 17, 2016

Of Cowboys and Shepherds

          I hope that you enjoy and are edified by my homily from this past Sunday.  Please pray for me this week as I will be on retreat.  Many blessings to you all!

Homily: 4th Sunday of Easter – Cycle C
          If you’ve grown up here in the United States, then you probably know something about cowboys and cattle ranchers.  Perhaps many of us have never been on a cattle ranch, but the image of the cowboy and cattle rancher is so ubiquitous in our cultural folklore that I would dare to say that very few of us know nothing about them.  Even for our friends who have come to us from south of our borders, even if they have never seen the countless films and television shows about cowboys and cattle ranchers, they would know something about them because many of them have come from rural areas where they either owned or worked on ranches.
          That said, one of the most prominent images of cowboys and cattle ranchers is the image of the cowboys driving the herd of cattle: either from one area to another or to market for sale.  It takes a lot of cowboys to drive a herd of cattle.  You need a line of cowboys pushing from behind just to get them moving and a number of cowboys on either side to keep them all together.  It takes a lot of energy to drive a herd of cattle and there’s nothing gentle about it.
          Shepherding, however, is very different than this.  Perhaps, for many of us, the only things that we know about shepherding are what Jesus tells us in the Gospels.  The shepherd, in contrast to the cowboy driving the herd from behind, walks ahead of the sheep, whistling, speaking, or singing, and the sheep follow behind.  As long as they can hear the shepherd’s voice, they will keep following.  This, of course, means that they have to stay close to the shepherd; because, if they get too far away, they won’t be able to hear his voice and, thus, may get separated from the flock and become lost.  This is, perhaps, why it always looks like sheep are walking on top of each other: they don’t want to risk getting too far away from the shepherd!  This helps for protection, too, as predators won’t attack the sheep if the shepherd is close.  And so we see that the work of the shepherd is much different than the work of the cowboy, though the result is the same: the herd/flock moves from one place to another.
          Isn’t it interesting, then, that God has chosen to use the image of the shepherd to describe himself?  Among ancient religions, even those that worshiped many gods, they almost always acknowledge one god that is supreme above them all.  This god is often associated with the sun or the sea or a volcano—some natural phenomenon on which their culture depends.  Never, however, do they see this supreme god as a divine shepherd of humankind.  Comparing God to a good shepherd can only happen in a religion that recognizes a special connection between the human person and God—such as, for instance, when the book of Genesis describes that man was created in the image of God.  Only then does the comparison make sense, because a God who is a good shepherd is a God who walks with his people, guiding them and protecting them from harm.
          Thus, when Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me” he is invoking this image of the divine shepherd of humankind.  He is reminding us that God is not someone who is distant from us, but rather someone who is close to us and who wants us to remain close to him.  Too often, perhaps, we think of God as a cowboy driving the herd, using force to move us in the direction that he wants us to move.  The Scriptures today remind us, however, that God is like a shepherd who leads us by the sound of his voice.  In this image, we have a responsibility, don’t we?  A responsibility to stay close enough to hear his voice.
          Unfortunately, life in today's world is noisy, and it is not always easy for us to hear the voice of our good shepherd.  We are bombarded with so many other voices, so many images, so many ideas.  Christ knows this, yet he still tells us, "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me."  What gives Christ so much confidence in our ability to stay close to him and avoid the traps set by poachers and wolves?  It is prayer, one of God's greatest gifts to us, and one that we often take for granted.  Christ is always paying attention to us, just as a good shepherd pays attention to his sheep.  He is always speaking to us, just as a good shepherd walks ahead of his flock talking and singing, so they can hear him and follow.  No matter how noisy, dark, or stormy it gets, Jesus knows how to make his voice heard in our hearts; but we have to tune in.  So how do we do this?
          First, of course, is to stay close to him in the sacraments.  Our weekly participation in the Mass and the frequent use of the sacrament of Reconciliation are tangible means of grace that keep us close to the Shepherd so that we can hear his voice.  Beyond that is our time of private prayer, particularly spending time with the Holy Scriptures.  The Scriptures are the living Word of God and so spending time praying with them helps us to know what his voice sounds like so as to know when he is speaking to us.  Finally, the teachings of the pope, our bishop, your priests and lay leaders are additional ways that we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking directly into our lives. 
          Listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd is also the way for one to discover his or her vocation.  We all know that there is a constant need for more young men and women to discover and to follow God’s call to the priesthood and religious life.  Every one of us has the duty to help our young people to hear the call of the Good Shepherd.  God keeps calling, but there must be a fervent Christian environment among families, parishes need to promote formative and apostolic activities that open young people’s hearts to the call of the Lord, and young people need to be taught generosity so as not to deny God anything He asks for. We need to pray for our young people and to encourage them to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd to see if he is calling them to a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.  It is also providential that this World Day of Prayer for Vocations comes just one week after Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation “On Love in the Family”, because it is truly the fostering of a renewal of Christian family life that will foster a renewal of vocational discernment among our young people.
          My brothers and sisters, with all of the competing voices surrounding us, it surely is hard work to listen for the voice of Jesus; but it is a work we must take up if we hope to be one of the great multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb who will drink from the springs of life-giving water for all eternity.  Let us take up this good work so that we may never lose our way and so that we might enjoy the loving care of the Good Shepherd forever in heaven.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – April 16th, 2016

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