Saturday, May 14, 2011

You are what you are before God

A shepherd was herding his flock one day when suddenly a shiny BMW came towards him. The driver, a well-dressed young man leaned out the window and asked the shepherd, “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?” The shepherd looked at the man, then looked at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answered, “Sure.” The man quickly pulled out a laptop computer, surfed to a NASA web page, called up a GPS satellite, and scanned the area. Finally, his computer beeped its completion and he turned to the shepherd and said, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.” “That is correct; take one of the sheep.” said the shepherd. He watched the young man select one of the animals and bundle it into his car.

Then the shepherd said: “Now, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?” “OK, why not.” answered the young man. “Clearly, you are a consultant.” said the shepherd. “That's correct,” said the surprised man, “but how did you guess that?” “No guessing required.” answered the shepherd. “You turned up here although nobody called you. You want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked, and you clearly don't know anything about my business and I can prove it." Pointing to the animal in the man's car, he said, "Now give me back my dog.” I couldn’t resist a good sheep joke on this Good Shepherd Sunday.

We heard in our Gospel passage today, “The sheep follow [Me], because they recognize [My] voice…I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” We have a few different celebrations taking place today. We celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday and the Church calls us to mark today as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. I think as we reflect we see that there is something wonderfully complimentary about these celebrations.

Perhaps one of the most powerful images that Jesus gives us of Himself is as the Good Shepherd. So, we need to know a little bit about shepherds and what they do. In Jesus time, there were two kinds of shepherds. There was the hired hand for whom keeping the sheep was just the available job. He moved from flock to flock depending on the conditions of service and he would not risk his life for them. Seeing danger he would flee and leave the flock untended. Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same flock all his life. He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and knows everything about each of his sheep. He knows which ones are strong, which are weak; which ones might stray from the flock and would keep an eye on them. When in danger, he would risk his life to defend his sheep.

Jesus tells us that this is the kind of shepherd He is. He knows each one of us individually. He knows the cares and concerns of our lives. He knows our needs. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows what we can be. And this is the heart of vocation: discovering our best identity – who we are called to be in God’s sight. You know, God is continually calling people. Our task, as His sheep, is to create environments in our lives, in our families, in our communities, where we help and allow people to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, so that they can follow where He will lead. “The sheep hear His voice and follow Him.” And this is a common task for every one of us. Now, our individual vocation may not be to formal ministry in the Church as someone ordained or consecrated, but the Good Shepherd is calling all of us to something. Can we hear His voice?

As we find ourselves today in between celebrations of Mother’s and Father’s Day, I’ve often thought that the Good Shepherd sounds a lot like a Good Mother or a Good Father. A good parent likewise knows their children in each and every way. They try to protect them, lead them, guide them towards the things that are happy and good and holy. Good parents play a crucial role in building up the kingdom of God's love within their families. Just as our Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph had unique roles in shaping the life of Jesus, so every parent is called to shape the religious life of their own children. Much like the Good Shepherd, a Good Mom or Dad nurture their children in the light of faith so they can truly discover their identity in God’s sight – the only identity that really matters.

And that is what connects our different celebrations today. It is all about identity. Who we are is what is important. And the only important answer to the question of our identity is who we are before God. St. Francis would remind his brothers, “You are what You are before God. That and nothing more.” And nothing less. The Good Shepherd helps us to see this. He knows who we are intimately. Good parents helps us to grow towards this as they encourage us to see ourselves primarily through the eyes of faith – as God’s sons and daughters. And when we know our true identity before God, we discover our vocation; our calling; who we are to be in His sight.

If this identity has been nurtured by our parents, and if we’ve been open to the Good Shepherd, we see it most clearly each and every time we gather around the Eucharistic table of our Lord. Receiving the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, tells us something about ourselves. When we enter into that personal relationship with Jesus that we can only have in the Eucharist, Jesus helps us to discover who He has called us to be. We are most clearly the people we are called to be in the Eucharist. You want to know what Jesus asks of you, what Jesus wants you to do, what your vocation is – meet Jesus in the Eucharist and he will reveal it to you.

My own vocation story boils down to this very same reality. As a teen, I really didn’t have any faith. I had not begun on a faith journey with the Lord. In my early 20s I felt drawn for the first time in my life to the Eucharist. When I began going to Mass, I started to have powerful experiences – with the Mass speaking to me in a way it never had before. I felt the presence of Jesus that I had never felt before. I remember receiving the Eucharist at one of these Masses and in a spiritual sense this was my first true Communion because it was the first time that I truly believed in my heart that this was Jesus. And when I met him personally, for the first time, He began to show me who I really was and what He really wanted from me. It was through meeting Jesus in the Eucharist that I discovered my vocation, my calling, my place in God’s Kingdom. And you can too.
We have all been led here by a Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and wants the best for them. We have been nurtured by Good Mothers and Fathers (and by our Blessed Mother) who want us to grow in the ways of faith and draw closer to God. We will meet Him in a profound and special way in the Eucharist and discover who we are in God’s sight and what God has planned for them in His Kingdom.

“The sheep follow [Me], because they recognize [My] voice…I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly”

Let us pray that more young men and women will have the will to pursue the vocation that God is calling them to; that they will follow the Good Shepherd. Let us be people who encourage them to do so. Let us pray for all our families that God will strengthen them in being places where young people can discover who they are in God’s sight and have the courage to follow.

May God give you peace.

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