“Over His Dead Body”
One of our new Pope’s most famous and early quotes had to do with sheep smell. He said that Priestly leaders must know the folks to whom they preach and hence the smell of the sheep. Wet sheep smell is not pleasant. I had funeral and burial many years ago in a heavy San Francisco rain wearing a wool religious habit. A Sheltie (short for Shetland sheep dog by the name of Mac) was sharing my life at that time. When I got home the smell drove my poor little dog crazy. He started running in circles “herding” me. This was the closest to sheep smell he had ever experienced. Deep in his DNA, though, a voice told him to try to organize and protect this big wet, wooly creature.
While we call this “Good Shepherd Sunday,” our readings this “A” cycle are more about barn architecture… the “gate,” then the country herder of sheep. At least at first glance. Jesus’ reflection in the Gospel of John comes in reply to the questions of a not-so-friendly crowd of religious leaders who had just thrown out a formerly blind man from their company. They were Israel’s official gate-keepers and were miffed that this formerly vision-challenged “sinner” seemed to know more about God than they did. We read it recently at one of the “Scrutiny” Sundays of Lent. Country shepherds would make a shelter of big stones and brush to enclose the sheep in their care for safety during the night. The shepherd literally used his body as the gate, when all were safely “tucked in” his impromptu enclosure. He’d sleep in that spot, with his shepherd crook nearby to fight off invaders. No one got to the flock except literally, “over his dead body!”
It is a great image of the resurrected Christ. Jesus was not trying to hold the sheep out, but protect them from them predators. He used his voice and his body as salvation for his flock. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, he Scriptures of the liturgy invite us into the divine dream, a safe and joyful communion to which God has destined all of creation. We are the gate-keepers for many. It takes great patience, especially with the dissident and difficult. We are the gate-keepers of a great vision of God for the human community—-A sheepfold of safety, pasture and rest. We too easily can exclude as the unworthy and off color sheep. Yet those are often the ones we are called to shepherd in his name as he shepherded us literally over his dead body.
His body was so full of God, so infused with life, that death could not even hold him. He would call the sheep in his care to enclosure and safety with parables and miracles. He healed paralysis and blindness that appeared to contain life and hope. We had been “gone astray” sheep says the First Letter of Peter, “but we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” His voice, if we pay close attention to the Scriptures and the silence between words, guides in right paths. It also helps to travel together. Maybe when my ears no longer hear the voice of the shepherd, someone else’s will.
This season of “Easters” continues to unfold, many new epiphanies of the Risen Christ shepherd us as church into being good gatekeepers in his name. Keep in prayer those preparing for First Communion and Confirmation in the coming weeks. We continue to gather those received into the Church during the Easter Vigil. Something is indeed happening here at St. Mary’s.
A gentle week.
Fr. Michael Weldon, OFM