We’re Shepherds All!

When I heard familiar voices outside, I grabbed my hoodie and headed to the front door. Neighbors had been marooned out of town since the onset of our stay-at-home attempts to control the Corona Virus. They’d finally made it home and were wearily, but happily unpacking their car. I yelled from across the lawn to welcome them back to the neighborhood. My neighbor Kathy had come out to do the same. In the midst of it all, she looked in my direction to say, “You know, I don’t know what day it is any more. Since we can’t go to church, I’ve lost my bearings. Sunday used to be my anchor day. Now, I don’t know. It’s tough.” At first, I was surprised by Kathy’s comment. Because I’ve continued to post on my blog every day, I’ve adhered to a schedule of sorts. The writing, the online liturgies streamed from so many of our churches, as well as my ongoing conversation with our patient God have apparently kept me more grounded than I realized.

After bidding my neighbors farewell, I returned to my keyboard to begin this writing. When I reread today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), I recalled that Jesus’ contemporaries had lost their bearings as well. They had also lost access to the anchor which should have kept them grounded. This passage tells us that Jesus was angry as he spoke on that particular day because his troubled neighbors had no one to turn to in their suffering. They should have been able to go to the temple to pray for consolation and to seek counsel from the priests and scribes there. The people should have found comfort simply by being in that holy place. Rather, the Pharisees had manipulated The Law to own their benefit. They had imposed rules of every sort which limited the people’s access to their worship space, to the temple staff and to God. The virus which threatened in Jesus’ day had replaced compassion with control and had denied God’s comfort to those who needed it most.

Jesus responded to the situation by calling those who truly wished to serve the people to emulate shepherds. Though the temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their jobs prevented them from adhering to the letter of The Law, Jesus held up shepherds as ideal examples of leadership, caring and love. The shepherds of Jesus’ day spent long hours in fields with their herds. Though they lacked education and power of any sort, they were key to the prosperity of wealthy sheep owners. Jesus reminded the people that shepherds dutifully guarded and nurtured the sheep in their charge. Every sheep knew its keeper’s voice, keenly aware of the special call only he could produce to beckon it to his side. When it came time to be led in or out of the pasture, each sheep followed the voice it had come to know and to trust. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the shepherd’s guidance was essential to each animal’s survival. Jesus expected no less of those entrusted with God’s people. Jesus lost his patience in the temple that day because the Pharisees and their company had lost sight of their mission to anchor God’s people by lovingly shepherding them.

I think my neighbor felt that she’d lost her bearings because she thought she had lost access to the anchor she’d found at her parish church. It occurs to me that, without realizing it, Kathy has become the anchor she longed for. She listened compassionately as our friends described their lengthy isolation in cramped quarters. In the midst of admirable social distancing, Kathy and her husband provided refreshments since the returning couple was greeted by both an empty house and an empty refrigerator. Kathy had certainly provided the welcome which Jesus expected the temple staff to provide two millenniums ago. What a great example of shepherding Kathy was!

It seems that Easter Season 2020 will continue to be filled with moments of uncertainty and solitude for us all. The good news is that we will endure these difficult times in very good company. Our Good Shepherd reassures us all that none of us suffer alone. Kathy felt that she’d lost her anchor because it has come to her in a different form these days. Rather than finding solace and peace in the church building and the people whom she’s come to love there, Kathy has become the anchor where those things abide for others. In the rare event that she falters in her new role, Jesus will lift her up onto his shoulders and carry her through. You and I are invited to be anchors for one another as well. If you’re wondering how you might proceed, think of Kathy’s kindness and respond as she did to those you’ve been given to love. However we support our loved ones though this COVID-19 ordeal, as he does for my dear neighbor, Jesus will be with us to shepherd us every step of the way.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Just Like Our Shepherd

While at the grocery store the other day, I met some friends who’d spent the winter months away. After I welcomed them back to beautiful Gurnee, they asked about our trip to Israel. They’ve traveled to Europe, but have never ventured to the Holy Land and were anxious to hear my impressions. This is the reason they patiently endured my fifteen-minute summary of the trip’s highlights. When I realized how long I’d kept them from their shopping, I apologized, thanked them for listening and sent them on their way. As for me, I breezed through the rest of my grocery list with a smile. After loading the car, I nestled into my seat, inserted the key and switched the radio to CD mode. Suddenly, I returned to our tour boat on the Sea of Galilee. While I imagined the hillsides which Jesus frequented so long ago, our boat captain Daniel sang of his newfound love for Jesus. These images remained with me for the rest of the day.

The house was quiet when I returned home, so I stowed the groceries quickly and headed to the study to begin this writing. Because we’re in the midst of the Easter Season, my mental return to Israel was perfectly timed. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first two scripture passages focus upon the enthusiastic disciples. Peter and the rest couldn’t contain their good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They encouraged all who would listen to open themselves to the Good Shepherd who had paved the way to God for us all. It is John’s gospel (10:1-10) which addresses the nitty-gritty of shepherding and Jesus’ willingness to embrace this role on behalf of each one of us.

In Israel, I discovered that shepherds continue to work on the hillsides where Jesus once walked. Though some must secure other employment to supplement their incomes, modern-day shepherds take this work as seriously as their long-ago contemporaries did. They teach their flocks to follow their voices and their scents. Though a shepherd smells much like his flock by the end of a long day, sheep instinctively sort through the aromas in the air to find him. Christmas card images of shepherds carrying lambs around their necks suggest the shepherds’ affection for these little ones. In reality, shepherds carry wandering lambs over their shoulders until they learn their scent. This gesture indicates far more than fondness for a wayward lamb. It’s a life-saving effort.

John’s gospel tells us that for Jesus every effort on behalf of his sheep was life-giving and life-saving. This is the reason Jesus spoke so harshly regarding those who attempted to steal sheep. These thieves had no intention of caring for their captives. They stole sheep to use them for their own benefit, for food or for sale. They engaged in covert efforts to draw unsuspecting sheep into their grasps because no sheep would approach these interlopers on their own. On that particular day, Jesus referenced the Pharisees in the temple as similar robbers. Rather than getting close to the people, they set themselves apart. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel told of the Pharisees’ repeated questioning of a blind man whom Jesus had cured. When the man attributed this healing to Jesus, the Pharisees labeled him a blasphemer and banished him from the temple. Rather than rejoicing in the man’s newfound sight and the amazing future which lay before him, the Pharisees ostracized him in an effort to avoid giving any credence to Jesus. Jesus responded by making it very clear that there is no room for exclusion in God’s family. Jesus expected everyone who found himself or herself in a position of leadership to remain close enough to the flock to smell like them. This Good Shepherd of ours went on to ask both the leaders and the followers among us to remain close enough to him to recognize him with certainty. If we do as Jesus did, we’ll remain close enough to each other to know one another equally well.

One of the most important lessons I learned while in Israel is that there is great holiness to be found amidst the hustle and hassles of our daily lives. Wherever we were, local people hurried about their business while our guide led us to the amazing sights which, out of necessity, they had learned to ignore. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is surrounded by bustling Jerusalem while Solomon’s Quarry rests beneath this city. In an effort not to miss any of Israel’s treasures, visitors make their way as best they can to enjoy them. It seems to me that we’re asked to make our way as best we can as well. We’re asked to venture through the crowds around us with the eagerness of tourists to find one another. Like our Shepherd, we’re asked to get up close and personal and to care for one another as only you and I can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved