Good Shepherd (aka Vocations) Sunday, 2023

The middle Sunday of the Easter season is called the “Good Shepherd Sunday” as this week, we always read Ps 23, “the Lord is my Shepherd,” and John 10 that applies this analogy to Jesus over all of its 42 verses. This year, we read its beginning that presents Jesus, paradoxically, as the shepherd, gatekeeper and gate all at once. The portions we will read on this Sunday in 2024/25 will be more straightforward, explaining what constitutes the shepherd’s “goodness”. And today is also known as the “Vocations Sunday” because, traditionally, ordinations to religious orders take place this week – the Church affirms its future shepherds. Our Diocese, too, ordains its transitional deacons yearly on Easter 4. This afternoon, I will attend the ordination of our incoming curate, just as I mark my own liturgical anniversaries of becoming both a deacon and priest. 

However, vocational discernment is not the prerogative of the clergy. The reason the shepherding Sunday sits in the middle of the Eastertide is for all of us to start thinking about what the Church – born on Pentecost – is, and how we may foster the life of the resurrection within it. So to me, John 10 seems to be less about how well God cares for us, but rather how important it is for us to find meaning in caring for others. Yes, church ministers are called pastors because Jesus said to Peter, “if you love me, feed my lambs”; but, I believe Jesus directs these words to all people – lay and religious, employed and home-makers – as the key to fulfillment. I can give you numerous examples: in long-term care, the ability to perform meaningful activities for others is directly related to end-of-life quality; having a clear role in one’s community may extend life-span by 7 years; there are links between career dissatisfaction and clinical depression; and even toddlers find meaning in having small “jobs” around the house. 

So it seems that humans of all ages seek the meaning of life, and find it in service. As for the biblical shepherding that seems foreign, outdated, or demeaning to us, I think that’s simply how the ancients illustrated this truth using their own occupation. Israel’s patriarchs, judges and even kings tended sheep, so they understood the leadership of their caring, nourishing, protective God and his “anointed” in those terms. If you were to write a text about how a modern-day person might best imitate God’s goodness in daily living, which profession would you use? Which ones do we tend to romanticize? Those super-caring, life-saving, widely-impactful jobs with associated TV series that make us wish for more “interesting” lives… would that be a doctor or detective? (As opposed to mailmen, phys ed teachers, and convenience store owners that look more like “us, regular people”!) Now, how about firefighters who not only save people, but pose for calendars, and youtube influencers who, well, “influence”? Do any of them epitomize a meaningful occupation? Maybe, you have already been fortunate to devote your career to your ideal, different from these. If not, could you pinpoint what in another profession attracts you, and then see some of what you do as parallel? For example, if I wasn’t a clergy, I would have liked to be a physician or midwife. Yet, some of the things I do heal spiritual and emotional hurts, and/or assist in the birth of new insights, so I can see how these aspects of my occupation respond to my vocation – my calling. What about you?

Vocational fulfillment transcends what we do, how much it pays, how high we climb, how wide is our influence, and how much we even like it. But, there is a trade-off. Jesus said to Peter “if you love me, feed my lambs,” but it will lead “where you do not want to go”. A shepherd is a particularly good stand-in for the Lord, even to us non-agrarian people, because he has to walk the world’s varied terrain together with and one step ahead of his charges, rather than sending them out on their own. Sometimes, it means sacrificing our wellness, being heard, being right… which is not where we “want to go”. But it is the self-sacrificial stance that makes “skilled” shepherds “good” in a wider biblical sense of the word: leaders worth following, providers worth trusting, examples worth emulating. As an antidote to vocational dissatisfaction, consider the balance of sacrifice vs. fulfillment that other professions entail, and compare it with your own.  

Lastly, consider reading the words of Oscar Romero on this week’s leaflet. Made a saint in 2018 and depicted as one of the 10 last-century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, he spent his life denouncing human rights violations in San Salvador, and died from a shot in the heart while celebrating a mass. He never saw the end of civil war violence or justice for the poor, for which he advocated and died. But the strength of his calling was independent of its results – he took “the long view”. Acting selflessly might not seem immediately worth doing, even for the sake of others. So often we choose to do nothing because “it won’t change anything”. But, in Bishop Romero’s words, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well… An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest”. May we, on this Vocations Sunday, renew our commitment to “something that we do very well”, and celebrate how competently others do the rest, with God’s help. 

Take the Long View

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that
The Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expressed our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
Knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produced effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

– Archbishop Oscar Romero

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