4 Easter A – May 11, 2014 – Mothers and Shepherds
Wanda Pratt was a twenty-one year old single Mom who raised two boys by herself. She rose 5:30 every morning to get them ready for school before working multiple jobs. According to her son, “she kept us off the streets, put clothes on our backs and food on the table. When she went to sleep hungry she made sure we ate.” She sacrificed for us, he said.
These are the words of Kevin Durant who was just named the Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association. It is hard not to be moved by Durant’s thoughtful, humble and emotional acceptance speech. His stardom would not have been possible if it were not for his mother.
Today’s scriptures are about shepherds and sheep and beg the question: who leads whom? Where would we be without the direction we received from our parents, teachers, friends and co-workers? How do we take our turn today? How do we assume leadership roles?
There are about 200 references to sheep in the bible. Jesus used the sheep and shepherd metaphor as a way to speak about unity and security. He is called the sheep gate in today’s gospel. As Christians we believe anything is possible in this sheepfold. The earliest known artistic images of Jesus first depicted him as a shepherd. Only after the church absorbed imperialistic tendencies was Jesus painted as a ruler and judge.
Sheep are social animals. They stick together even when attacked. They do tend to follow the sheep in front of them. When some sheep take a different course, the rest will go along. Some studies suggest sheep are not as dumb or slow as we think. In fact certain sheep can lead others safely, wherever they are going, without shepherds.
Why, in our church, are the clergy always thought of as the shepherds and the laity as the sheep? Over the centuries church governance slowly shifted from a domestic model where Christian households met together to make decisions with their elders. Eventually, emperors, kings and clergy alone governed the church and established its rules and doctrines. The laity were treated like serfs or … sheep that needed to be kept together and prevented from falling out of line.
How does anyone create a sense of unity today when there are diverse opinions in every sector of life on just about any issue? Is there only one way to happiness, a spiritual life and God when there are other reasonable and worthwhile paths to follow? How do any religious leaders keep the multitudes together when some of the other sheep in the same flock are also capable, talented trailblazers?
Pope Francis presents a different image of the shepherd when he says that bishops should “smell like the sheep.” He warns against careerism and autocracy. He echoes the spirit of the pastoral teachings of the last ecumenical council, that call for a more collegial relationship between church leaders and other members of the church. It is a spirited strategy whereby all baptized people are co-workers in the fields, walking arm in arm together.
The idea of being part of a flock is not limited to our church. We belong to a much larger cohort, the herd of humanity if you will. In the first reading there was the call to do something, however small, to reduce the corruption that is all around us. This task is difficult. According to Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches, “the prevailing globalized culture seems to accept and legitimize social, economic and ecological injustices.”
The Easter season provides a time for us to remember what we have been called to do. It is a springtime of passages and transitions celebrated in graduations, baptisms, confirmations, and first communions. These are life cycle moments of hope and possibilities not only for ourselves but for the world. We are thrilled to welcome our little brothers and sisters to the eucharist today. They will share with the rest of us the spiritual food and drink that gives sustenance and energy for their life journeys and ours.
On this Mothers’ Day we think with sorrow of the parents of those young girls abducted in northern Nigeria. We mourn the loss of those teenagers who drowned in that South Korean ferry tragedy. And, we cry for those who know not their mothers. We give thanks for our mothers, our parents and guardians who brought us and continue to bring us to where we are. They are indeed the “most valuable players” in the game of life.