Cardinal Dolan of New York once related a story from a time when he was part of a study group on tour in the Holy Land. One day while hiking, the group encountered two shepherds enjoying conversation and a smoke. And while these two shepherds had been talking their two grazing flocks had become completely mixed together. Through their guide, the group asked how the hundreds of sheep would sort themselves out and follow the correct shepherd. Eager to impress these tourists and hoping for a gratuity, the two men stood at a distance from one another, yelled something incomprehensible, and began walking in opposite directions. Immediately, the sheep fell in line behind the proper shepherd. And then the two shepherds began to show off, they exchanged clothing and once again stood apart and shouted. So familiar were the shepherds’ voices to the sheep that these animals ignoring the disguised outward appearance again followed their own shepherd.
“My sheep hear my voice,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel, “I know them, and they follow me.” A few verses earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus states that sheep follow the shepherd “because they recognize his voice,” whereas “they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” The focus of today’s liturgy is hard to miss: in addition to the Gospel, the opening prayer, the responsorial psalm, the second reading from Revelation, and the prayer after Communion all speak to us of the Good Shepherd.
It’s interesting to note that Judaism and Christianity are the only two major World religions that describe God as a Shepherd. A shepherd is one who walks closely among his sheep. He’s so close he smells like his sheep. He’s covered in their grime. He knows them well; he knows them individually and can tell when something is just not right. He knows when they’re sick and need attention. He knows when they’re tired/distressed and need rest. He knows when they’re hungry and need food. He tirelessly searches for the straying and lost. He protects them from predators. And finally he knows when his sheep are just too exhausted and need to be carried. This is our Lord this is our Good Shepherd.
As Cardinal Dolan experienced, sheep are very good at knowing the voice of their shepherd and following it. Now I’ve had this experience myself. Today is the perfect day to talk about Buck, the “wonder lamb.” When I was a kid Grandpa Ankley gave to my brother Matt and me a newborn lamb. I remember the night he gave it to us, he brought it right into the kitchen and set it free. Matt and I, with great excitement, chased it all over the house, we chased it until it peed under the kitchen table. Mom was not smiling. Buck went to the barn. Buck was very young and needed to be bottle fed, which we did. He attached to us quickly, he knew our voices. He followed us everywhere, when we walked, when we ran, and even when we rode our bikes, Buck followed closely behind. Everywhere that Chris went that lamb was sure to follow. Now sometimes in his ovine exuberance he would race ahead of us. In those moments he’d lose sight of us and become disoriented and frightened. He’d begin to baa loudly. But all we’d have to do is call out to him, call him by name, and he’d come running with his tail wagging behind him. He knew the voice of his shepherd.
Today Good Shepherd Sunday is also known as World day of Prayer for Vocations. The Church gives us this day to remind us that the Good Shepherd is constantly calling out to us, constantly calling us each by name. In fact the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare which means to call. Each of us was created out of a unique Divine love. Our Lord loves us each in a unique one of a kind way. If he were to stop thinking of us and to stop beholding us with His Divine gaze, even if only for a nanosecond, we would cease to exist. And so with great love, at all times, our Lord sweetly calls out to us.
Now our good shepherd calls us not only to the big things of holiness and vocation, but he also calls us to follow him in the little everyday things we do. Now sometimes we listen like those sheep in the Middle East, and we follow but sometimes we ignore and let the noise of the world interfere. Today I think, it’s maybe a little more difficult to hear that divine voice with all the noise of our modern culture. So we need to set aside time every day for silence. We need a bit of silence every day; no TV, no radio, no headphones, no whatever noise making distracting device we may own.
In that regular and repeated silence we pray. We pray in order to hear that voice of our Shepherd. In the Old Testament we read of the prophet Elijah and he heard the voice of the Lord but he only heard the voice in a tiny whispering sound. Elijah didn’t hear our Lord’s voice in earthquakes, or winds, or fire. He didn’t and couldn’t hear our Lord’s voice in the noise of the world. He only heard it in the silence. This Church is the perfect place for silence, the perfect place to know, to learn, and to listen for the voice of our Shepherd.
The last line of our second reading was this, “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd us and lead us to springs of life-giving water, and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” Our Lord does not love us because we’re so good, He loves us because He’s so good. And He’s not attracted to our gifts, virtues, and talents, but rather, He’s attracted to our weakness, brokenness, and sin. And He loves us and calls us, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.
If ever we stray may we quickly recognize His voice and come quickly back to Him.
May we be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley