This Sunday is typically called Good Shepherd Sunday, and as I was thinking about the readings and our reflection on the readings today, I remembered a story that perhaps I've told before, I don't remember that, but it's maybe true, maybe not. Remember back in the days when we had confirmation in the parishes and the bishop would come and the children, and at that point they used to be nine, ten, eleven years old, and at the beginning of the ceremony the bishop would ask the kids questions.
Of course they were all nervous, "Will the bishop call on me?" and they're trying to squeeze down a little bit, be out of sight. But one youngster, when the bishop started to ask questions, raised his hand right away. He was ready to recite a Psalm for the bishop, Psalm 23. So he stands up and he says, "The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I shall want," and then his mind goes blank. The next line just won't come, so he's standing there and then finally says, "And that's all I need to know."
Fourth Sunday of Easter
It's true, isn't it? The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. That's all we really need to know: that God loves us, never stops loving us, and only asks that we show gratitude and try to love in return, love God and love one another. So that's a good story about Good Shepherd Sunday. We have to think about our Scriptures today and how, through learning more about the Good Shepherd, we learn more about how God loves us and how we are to respond to that love.
The idea of God as a shepherd is woven through all the Scriptures. The Old Testament is filled with references to God as a shepherd. David, the great ruler, the first real king of Israel and Judah was a shepherd, becomes a shepherd king, kind of a paradox because a king we think of as a ruler, stern and fierce, but the shepherd is tender, loving and caring. So that's the theme: shepherd, ruler. Ezekiel talks about the wicked shepherds, those who don't care about the sheep anymore.
Amos is a prophet who is a shepherd and is called by God to preach to the rulers. So that whole theme of shepherding comes down through the Old Testament. That's what Jesus is referring to when he says, "I am the Good Shepherd. I'm ready to lay down my life for my sheep." That's what a good shepherd does. The hireling, the one who is only a paid shepherd, flees when there's danger, abandons the sheep. "But I'm the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep."
During Holy Week we especially remember how Jesus, who loves us so much, was willing to lay down his life to demonstrate how to love and even how to love your enemies. Jesus is truly our Good Shepherd. As we reflect on this, we must think about how we respond. Of course, first of all, it will be with gratitude. We do have a God who cares for us, and every moment of our lives God is holding us in God's hands tenderly, carefully, lovingly, even ready to give God's life for us through Jesus.
In our church, our leaders are sometimes called shepherds. Holy Father, Bishop of Rome is the shepherd for the whole church. The priests and parishes are to be shepherds. Certainly, you here at this parish have an example of a priest who's been a shepherd lovingly, with great care for all of you for decades. It's amazing you have a pastor who is 97 years old and still shepherding this parish flock. It's a beautiful, tremendous gift that you have.
But it isn't just the priest who is to be the shepherd. Our whole church, as always, is called to carry on the work of Jesus, to be shepherd to people. Amazingly, I thought I had a sermon all prepared until yesterday, I had to change it because of Pope Francis. Did you hear what he did yesterday when he flew to the island of Lesbos in Greece to visit those refugees who are fleeing from violence and war and poverty trying to save their lives, save their children's lives and they're being turned back?
Pope Francis goes there yesterday and visits with these people and is joined by (and this is a beautiful thing that he brought about -- his ecumenical relationships) Patriarch Bartholomew, the patriarch of all the Orthodox Christians in the world and also by the Greek Orthodox archbishop. The three of them sit down and have lunch with these refugees. But Francis, of course, challenges us when he speaks to them he says, "We have come to call the attention of the world to this great humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution."
We can easily let this slip away from our awareness -- the humanitarian crisis, those hundreds of thousands of people fleeing because if they don't they'll be killed or they'll starve to death. Francis says, "As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf." He's talking to them, "We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity."
He's reminding us we're all brothers and sisters in this world—one human family, and we can't forget these brothers and sisters who are suffering so terribly. I wondered what he would do when he went there besides talking to them. Well, he brought some back to Rome with him on his airplane -- 12 of them, three families. He's arranged room for them with the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international community of Catholic Christians based in Rome in the Parish of Sant'Egidio.
They're going to see that they have places to live, that they begin to find a way to get work. He's given us an extraordinary example of how you welcome the refugee, the stranger. Francis also showed (I think this is very touching) reporters two drawings given to him by children in the refugee camp. One showed children drowning in the sea. The other showed the sun crying. Francis says, "The children have these things in their minds and it will take time before these memories go away. If the sun is able to cry, so can we. A tear will do all of us good."
He's pleading with us to have compassion, to even cry for these people as they desperately seek to save their lives. Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch said, "The world will be judged by the way it has treated you and we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and the conflict in the regions that you come from. The Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb." I hope we all can begin to picture this crisis more clearly, see the human people involved -- husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children simply fleeing to save their lives.
What will be our response? Will we do the shepherding like Sant'Egidio in Rome, that community? Will we be willing* to reach out and help whatever way we can discover? Individually, of course, there's not much we can do, but should we not as a nation have compassion and be reaching out to draw these people here? Pope Francis gives us an extraordinary example of shepherding modeled on the example of Jesus. Francis is even willing to lay down his life as a shepherd.
You may remember a few months ago he went into the Central African Republic, in a war zone where his life was under threat, but he went to visit Muslims in that war zone to try to work for peace. So he is a shepherd. We praise him; we thank God for him as our leader in the church. But isn't it time we began to emulate him, to have the spirit he has? I'm not sure, of course, any more than any of you are, of what precisely I can do, but I know I have to think about it, pray about it.
It's certainly work that our nation, as a whole, should be welcoming to those who are figuratively wanting to share in the goods that we have, save the lives of their children. We need to develop policies to welcome. "When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. When I was a stranger you took me in." Will we be willing to carry out that part of the message of Jesus, the Good Shepherd?
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]
*An earlier version of this story contained language that was inaccurate to the audio, and has been updated.