What Can a Good Shepherd Do?

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – July 18, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Being Shepherded In the Faith

I grew up in a “very Catholic” family in Wichita. I’m the fifth of ten kids, if that tells you anything. And every part of our life was penetrated by the Faith. Our daily schedule—our daily schedule—was modeled after Benedictine monasteries; that’s not an exaggeration. We would begin the day with 7:00am Mass, pray before we ate breakfast, pray before we started school (we were homeschooled, duh), pray before we ate dinner, praying the Rosary as a family (every night). Some of my earliest memories are falling asleep to the sound of my dad praying night prayer in the hall outside our room. There are priests in the family, nuns in the family. I have a younger sister who is a Dominican sister, a younger brother in seminary, my older brother is a third order Dominican. And again, so many “Catholic things.”

All of this is not to say I was very pious and very devout, or that we are perfect. I say all this to make the point that “the Faith” was just synonymous with “my life.” Our family had a motto: Vita Familia (of course it was in Latin, we’re nerds): Vita Familia, Family Life. Our life was family life, and family life was living the Faith. My life was ordered and structured around the Faith. My experience of the Faith was never just what happened at church. The Faith was my life. The experience generated by the faith was sustained in the concrete way we lived.

And all of this didn’t happen by accident. It happened because my parents made that decision, and then they made the sacrifices to make that happen. It wasn’t easy. Do you know how difficult it is to keep ten kids in line, much less get us out the door by 6:30 in the morning to go to Mass? Do you know how hard it is to keep a family of twelve together? Heroic. That’s the kind of virtue it took them.

All of this happened because my parents took on a very intentional, very active, very conscientious role as the leaders our family. Scripture would talk bout how they were the “shepherds” of the family. And being a shepherd is not easy. Scripture is filled with examples of bad shepherd: “shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock” (Jeremiah 23:1); shepherds who only take care of themselves and serve only themselves (c.f., Ezekiel 34:2); shepherds who abandon their flock and leave the sheep to fend for themselves (c.f., Mark 6:34). Most of the shepherds we hear about are the worst. But my parents, as flawed and imperfect as they are, were good shepherds. Our life, family life, was filled with the Faith because we had good shepherds, good leaders, good parents.

We Want A Leader Stronger Than Death

We want good leaders. Again, not just we “need” good leaders, good shepherds, good parents—we want them. We want good leaders, good parents, good shepherds. We’ve all seen what happens when there aren’t good parents or good shepherds or leaders. So yes, we need good ones. But even more so, we want them. When we don’t have them, there is so much confusion and chaos.

Jesus Christ himself is sent into the world by the Father to be this shepherd. Jeremiah promised that one day God would send someone to shepherd his people. This Gospel today, as Jesus looks at the crowd—Mark says that when Jesus saw them, “His heart was moved with pity, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34). These people ran to him because they had no one to shepherd them, they were lost, they were afraid, sunk in confusion and chaos. And how does Jesus react? “His heart was moved with pity.” Literally, his stomach sank, his guts turned over. And as a good shepherd, he begins to care for them, to lead them—as the story goes on, he teaches them and then he feeds them.

And these people stay with him. And as they stay with him, he begins to change their life. Everything in their life begins to make sense. He understands them. Jesus is a presence that attracts, that provokes. People are constantly coming from all over to see him, to listen to him, to see for themselves. And why? Because when they encounter him, when they meet him, in a way they can’t explain, in a way they don’t understand—this man changes everything. They literally run off and tell people, “Come and see this man. He told me everything. He changed me. He healed me. Is he perhaps the one we have been waiting for?”

And even in death—death, the one thing that should have messed it all up—not even death stopped this experience. Not even death could prevent this Shepherd from being with his sheep. The apostles went about proclaiming that this man had been raised and, because of this, a newness of life is available to everyone by the power of his Spirit. And people saw in them, in the apostles, the power of this Spirit—it wasn’t just talk! They wanted this life that they saw in the Apostles. And on the first day, on that Pentecost day, three thousand people were baptized.

Acts 2:42

The question is: how did they keep that experience alive? Again, we all know how easy it is to get sucked into the routine of things: come to Mass, say some prayers, but it never really affects us. I’ll save the story for another day, but even growing up in the family I did with the parents I had—it didn’t mean I never struggled with the Faith.

What did those early Christians have? What did they do to keep this experience alive? How did they allow this experience of Christ to continue to hold them and grip them? How was this Faith sustained when things got difficult? When the daily routine set in again, the monotony of life, how did they keep all of this alive? Because it has to look like something. It has to.

The Acts of the Apostles lists four things. After that Pentecost day, when over three thousand people were baptized—it says they did four simple things. Go look in Acts 2:42. It says, “They gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The teaching of the apostles, the common life, the breaking of the bread, and prayer. All four of these elements are present in our readings for this Sunday. And these four elements are precisely how we can model them in our own practice of the faith, how my own parents modeled our family life.

The Model of the Early Christian

“the apostles reported all they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30)

First, they held fast to the teaching of the apostles. One of the first things Jesus sends out his apostles to do is to teach. And not just the ten commandments or something, but to teach the message of repentance, the message of God’s coming kingdom. The apostles teach how to respond to the great announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ. The early Christians time and time again devoted themselves to this teaching, to what the apostles taught. In my own family, my parents took this role very seriously. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and that’s a tall task, but my parents took that role very seriously. Day in and day out, they handed on the teaching of the apostles to us. (We would read documents from the popes at dinner!) When it comes to the Faith, parents can’t just offload that role to someone else. Children are going to learn the faith from you.

“…one new person…in one body” (Ephesians 2:15-16)

The next thing these early Christians did was to give their full attention to the common life, to the life of the community. The second letter to the Ephesians brings this up, talking about this new community. There is a common life, a shared life, a life that isn’t just about you. Instead of great division and everyone being scattered, there is a great unity among the believers—an impossible, miraculous unity, really. And in that common life, in that unity of believers, things happen. Incredible things happen. In my family, remember, one of the things my parents worked for the most was the common life of the family, keeping us together. It would have been way easier to just let us all do our own things, to never sit down as a family to eat, to not even struggle with that. But our common life, our unity was instrumental for everything else.

“you spread the table before me” (Psalm 23:5)

Another thing the early Christians did (and this one is incredible because it was so early, which just goes to show how vital it is)—but they also dedicated themselves to the breaking of bread. From the earliest days, they placed the sacraments first and foremost—the breaking of bread, the Eucharist, above all else. Eventually, for us, this developed into the Mass, the banquet Psalm 23 foresees. Again, my parents: they placed the Mass above everything else. I can only remember missing one Sunday Mass my entire life (I was about seven and was barfing). Mass was the biggest priority every week. Daily Mass was a priority. Our entire family life was centered on the Eucharist, on the Mass.

“Come away to a deserted place” (Mark 6:31)

The last one is probably the most difficult, and probably the most important—they dedicated themselves to the prayers. This would have meant that they continued to pray the prayers in the morning, throughout the day, in the evening—but also that they spent time in silence and prayer. In our Gospel, after the apostles have done so much, taught and healed, Jesus calls them, “Come away to a deserted place.” There is a need for silence, and rest, and renewal in his presence. My family had time throughout the day to pray: before meals, the rosary every evening. We would go to adoration. Every night there was the “great silence.” But then my parents also modeled a life of prayer for us. My dad would wake us very early every morning, before everyone else was up, and pray; take time each morning and sit in silence and prayer. This is so essential for us.

It Looks Like Something

As I begin my time here at St. Paul and Holy Name, I think the thing I can encourage you in the most is this. There at the very beginning, on the first Pentecost, the apostles encouraged the people in four things, and from those four things, everything changed—this little Jesus-movement in Palestine came to encompass the entire world. It was that simple: they gave their full attention to the teaching of the apostles, to the common life, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers. The faith that they had received looked like something. Perhaps as we begin, this is precisely where we do it. Who knows where the Spirit will lead us. But perhaps with these four elements in place, we will be more attentive, more open to His guidance.

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