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4th Sunday of Easter - 24 April 2015 - Fr John's Homilies

4th Sunday of Easter - 24 April 2015
  1. Pope Francis recently called on the world’s priests to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

 

  1. The image that is being invoked by this call is of a shepherd who is sleeping and working outside, trudging through the rocky Palestinian hills in search of a patch of grass with a bunch of stubborn sheep; the shepherd who has the smell of sheep, dung, and body odours.

 

  1. This is rather a long way off from the images of Jesus as the groomed, doe-eyed good shepherd, cuddling a tiny helpless lamb or carrying one over his shoulders, as comforting and nostalgic as this image may be for us.

 

  1. Most of us want to see Jesus as taming what is wild and unruly in the world, who with the crook of his staff, can solve what is unsolvable and answer what is unanswerable in life, who can protect and defend against the thieves and bandits of this world who come only to steal, kill, and destroy.

 

  1. Pope Francis reminds us that we eventually must come face-to-face with the reality that the world is still wild and unruly, that there are still questions without answers, that there are still thieves and bandits in the world bent on destruction.

 

  1. Our own country came face-to-face with this reality in the last weeks when we savagely turned against our brothers and sisters from other African countries forcing them to flee from their homes.

 

  1. Sometimes the entire global has to come face-to-face with this reality all as it did when the Islamic State began to execute innocent victims, as it did when the bodies of migrants fleeing violence and poverty washed up on Mediterranean shores.

 

  1. Where was the Good Shepherd in the midst of all of this? Where is the shepherd that will sanitize all that is wrong with the world, who will clean up all that is messy and misplaced in our lives?

 

  1. Where is the shepherd to lead to the walled-off reality of the sheepfold? The sheepfold was essentially a secure pen in the wilderness constructed of large stones. It kept the sheep safe and guarded by a gatekeeper while the shepherd was away.

 

  1. We may have assumed the shepherd was leading the flock to safety. But that’s not really the case is it? Instead, the shepherd arrives to the sheepfold and calls the sheep away from the safety of the walled-off pen. And they follow the shepherd.

 

  1. Not to safety, but to the open wilderness. Because that’s where the shepherd always is. The shepherd isn’t in the sheepfold. The shepherd is beyond its boundaries, beyond the walls, beyond a place of safety and comfort.

 

  1. The shepherd comes to drive out his sheep from safety into pasture where there is abundant life. Beyond the sheep pen, there is most certainly green pasture and still waters, but there are also roaming predators, wolves and bandits. There is also a valley shadowed by death.

 

  1. It’s not just our images of the shepherd we’ve sanitized and cleaned up. We’ve done it to our text as well. We sheepishly say that Jesus simply “brings out all his own” from the sheep pen, but the Greek is so much more interesting. The verb used here is actually the exact same verb gospel writers use to describe the violent casting out of demons.

 

  1. The shepherd casts out his sheep from the safety of the pen. Suddenly, these sheep who have heard the shepherd’s voice are quite literally, outcast.

 

  1. In the gospel of John’s historical context, this makes sense. Written the latter half of the 1st century and after the destruction of the Temple by Roman military forces, John’s gospel is set amidst an intense conflict within Judaism, which resulted in the expulsion of Jewish-Christians from the synagogue. In other words, like the sheep in the story, early followers of Christ were cast out from the safety of the sheepfold.

 

  1. This text offered comfort to these outcast Jews who followed Christ by reminding them that Jesus was outside the sheepfold and that all they had to do was continue to follow his voice to find good pasture to restore their souls.

 

  1. It was terrifying and painful to have to leave the safe sanctuary of the faith of their fathers and mothers. It must have hurt to have the doors of the religious institutions shut in their faces because of their beliefs. It must have been incredibly disorienting to feel like they no longer belonged in the religion that birthed their own faith.

 

  1. The Good Shepherd is good not because he fixes everything but because he lays down his life for everyone. For those who fit in and those who don’t. For those who stay in the sheep pen and those who are outcast.

 

  1. Who are those other sheep that do not belong to this fold? Perhaps we too may answer with a litany of outsiders: lesbian and gay people, foreigners, people experiencing poverty, those suffering from mental illness; the list may be much wider...

 

  1. Jesus the Good Shepherd breaks bread with the outcasts and those society considered sinners. Jesus held these outsiders up as examples of profound faith; Jesus chose the despised to befriend. Jesus the Good Shepherd says that whenever we see the hungry, the poor, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the outcast, we are seeing Jesus himself.

 

  1. When we hear the voices of those outcasts in our society, those disenfranchised and marginalized, do we hear that voice for what it is, the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd calling us out from the safety of the sheepfold to be a flock of the cast-out.

 

  1. Not all of us can sell our possessions and give them to the poor as Jesus asks. Not all of us can hold our possessions and money in common so that none among us will be in need, though that’s how Acts says the early church functioned.

 

  1. Spending more time among the outcast and marginalized to serve those in need or to lend a helping hand doesn’t make us good people and better Christians.

 

  1. The point of being cast out of the safety of the sheep pen is not to do what is right or to help others out. The point is simply to be where the shepherd is. And the shepherd isn’t in the sheep pen.

 

  1. As Lilla Watson, an aboriginal woman in Australia explained to well-intentioned folk coming to help the outcast there, ““If you come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 

  1. That is the point. That in some way, this boundary-crossing shepherd is calling us to the idea that our liberation, our salvation is tied up with the salvation and liberation of all people. And that is why the shepherd comes to the sheep pen and calls us out into the wild pasture. Because that is where salvation, abundant life, is waiting.