To Shepherd Well – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily July 18, 2021

“Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture says the Lord. I love preaching when those woes come in. They’re kind of fun. Through the prophet Jeremiah God is pretty clear with those who are shepherds who were misleading the flock and back then in those days he was talking primarily about the kings, the kings that were leading the people. God said, ‘I myself will gather the remnant of the flock. I’ll shepherd them myself. If you can’t do it right I’ll do it.’ But yet notice- he doesn’t do it by himself. He could. God could do anything, but he always cooperates with humans. He always chooses delegates. He always picks people, often faulty people through whom he does his work. He said, ‘I will raise up, I will appoint shepherds.’ And eventually he says, ‘I will raise up a righteous shoot of David.’ Of course that’s the prophecy of Jesus there.

In the Gospel passage today Jesus welcomes back his apostles. Remember last week he sent them out two by two to shepherd his people. He sat them down and gave them clear instructions. He said, ‘Don’t rely on all the stuff. Let me work through you. Trust me. I will give you what you need.’ And he sat with them probably he probably sat with each couple, each two by two member. He probably didn’t even talk to them as a group. We don’t really know that for sure, but he made it very clear and then he sends them out and now he welcomes them back. He sent them out as shepherds to teach and to deliver his people.

There’s two points the readings kind of make today. First, we need shepherds. God sees us as individuals, yes, but not just as individuals. We’re part of something bigger. We are part of a people, a flock which is a term the scriptures use, a family. In baptism we entered the family of God. This is a family affair. We see throughout the scriptures God using shepherds. First the patriarchs, Moses obviously delivering the Israelites from bondage, the judges, the kings of Israel, the Jewish priests and eventually Jesus himself from which all priesthood flows. He uses them to shepherd his people to lead them in the right path. God’s plan involves shepherds. The second point- shepherds can only shepherd rightly if they listen, if they tune in, if they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd of God himself of Jesus in particular. They must listen. They must not do their own will but the will of the one who commissioned them the will of the one who sent them the will of the one who’s using them to shepherd his people. That’s necessary if you’re going to be a shepherd.

So let’s talk about the first point- God wants us to have shepherds. God chooses shepherds to guide to teach to protect to direct to encourage to govern to move his people and he uses others. When he uses other people to do His work as a shepherd it’s a continuation of the incarnation. In the incarnation the divine and the human meet. The mystery of shepherds is that God works through our weak humanity, the perfect with the imperfect. It’s a continuation, in the Church we see the continuation of the mystery of the incarnation, but it’s not just in the Church that there are shepherds. That’s kind of the classic image of the word pastor means shepherd, but also in nations those who lead nations, those who lead families, parents those who lead other groups such as companies or businesses or even for you young people sometimes your circle of friends. You usually end up being a follower or a leader. If you’re a leader in some sense you’re a shepherd.

I want to talk about three in particular. After the last mass some lady came up to me and she said, ‘Father you had a great homily, but you forgot one class of shepherds, teachers.’ I said, ‘You’re right. I did.’ Teachers are marvelous shepherds. They play an important role, but I want to talk about three tonight in particular- first clerics, bishops and priests, second parents and the third leaders, leaders of nations, politicians in other words or leaders of businesses, business men and women who run companies. They all shepherd in a sense. Pope Francis said, ‘If you’re gonna shepherd there’s kinda three things you have to keep in mind. First, you have to go before your flock. You have to be out in front of your flock. You have to lead your flock. Second, you have to walk with your flock and third, you have to follow after.’ So to walk out in front, to lead, you have to give a vision. You have to make it clear what the purpose and the direction is. You have to give moral guidance so they know where to go so they know what they’re headed toward. That’s so important in a nation to have a vision of what kind of people we are. When you lose that you lose unity. When you forget who you are and why you’re here you begin to have a lot of confusion and eventually in many places it leads to civil war because you don’t know what you’re about. You need leaders that show you why you’re there, why you were founded as a nation. In families when parents don’t make it clear what a family is, what God’s plan is for a family, what a family is meant to be, a school of faith in love and hope. When a family loses a sense of purpose you don’t really have a family anymore you just have a bunch of people living under the same roof, sadly today often all of them looking at their devices. In business really the corporate world probably is better at this than a lot, they know that you have to have, to have successful business, you have to have a vision, you have to have an identity of why you exist as a company, where we’re going. I once heard this story that back in the 60’s when President Kennedy had made this commitment to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade some senator went down to NASA and they saw some Janitor swinging a mop and they said, ‘What do you do here?’ And the guy said, ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon.’ Even in his role he knew what his company was about, he knew the vision. Leaders have to plant that vision; they have to be out there in front, they have to show purpose. So too in the Church we have to let people know why we exist, what God made us for, what the purpose of life is and to pursue that with His grace.

Walking with people, the second point Pope Francis makes, to accompany people. If you’re just out in front and never with the people then you become just an ideology just kind of a talking point, but if you walk with the people, if you accompany them they have a certain intimacy. They know that we’re in this together. There’s a certain approachability, a sense of common interest. We rub elbows. We’re all about this together and there’s a much more willingness to participate. That has to happen in families, in business, in the Church.

And lastly, to follow after- a shepherd has to sometimes follow the flock because there will be those who at times fall behind, those who get injured or wounded and they have to be accompanied and bandaged and healed and sometimes carried by the shepherd himself. They struggle to keep up. They have to be encouraged. That too happens at homes, at businesses, and in the Church, so whether you’re a priest or a deacon or a bishop or a parent or a politician or a business leader or a teacher, these principles apply if you want to shepherd well those who are entrusted to you.

My second point- we’re not shepherds with our own agenda or we shouldn’t be. If you want to shepherd rightly you must hear the voice of the Good Shepherd whether you’re a bishop, a parent or another leader you have to listen to why you’re there. You’re in that role for a purpose, a divine purpose. God doesn’t do anything without a purpose. You’re there for a reason at that place at that time in history with those people you’re working with for a purpose so we must spend time with the Lord getting clarity to our call. ‘Lord, what do you want of me here? How should I parent?’ Most parents don’t know to be parents don’t know when they first become parents. They have to learn how to parent. Most spouses don’t know how to be a spouse when you get married. Most priests don’t know how to be a priest when they get ordained despite the fact that they went to school for 500 years it seems. We have to learn that and we learn that mostly by listening to the Lord. ‘What are you asking of me?’ Jesus met with his apostles before he sent them out. He gave them clear instructions. They spent a lot of time with him learning and then when they came back he called them together away to reflect. What have you done? Come and rest awhile, he said and reflect. Look at what work you’ve done for me. Listening to Jesus is how we know what to do and then spending time with him is how we process what we’ve done. God says, ‘Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.’ Woe to the bishops and priests who teach their own doctrine and not the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Woe to parents that failed to shepherd their children toward the heart of Jesus and toward their heavenly home. Woe to politicians who use their office for their own agenda not for the things that flow from the truth and serve the common good. Woe to business men and women, leaders who run their companies for their own purposes and fail to see how God’s work can be done through them and how they can touch the lives of other people in their work.

Now some of you might say, ‘O gee Father, you’re kind of harsh on us. Gee Father, I’m retired. Maybe listening to you I’d have done it differently if I could go back, but I can’t. Gee Father, my kids are all grown up. If I had to do it over, maybe I’d do it differently.’ It’s not too late. We’ve all made mistakes. I used to work for the county, had a lot of people reporting to me. I made a lot of mistakes back then. I didn’t have much attention to marriage and family. I was one of those people that worked regardless of the cost to them at home. I regret that today. I would never do that again. I would realize the value of marriage and family. Back then I didn’t, so we repent of that and we become mentors for others that are there now. We go to our children who are now parents themselves and say, ‘Don’t do it like I did. Let me give you some pointers. I made some mistakes. Don’t do it like I did.’ If we have the opportunity to speak to young business people we share our own business experience. ‘I made some mistakes. Don’t make the same ones.’ Teachers, any of us can make that difference now. Even if we’ve made mistakes in the past. God wants there to be shepherds who leads His flock, yes, especially in the Church, but not just in the Church, in homes, in businesses, in the culture, in our schools. Many of our kids are being misled by bad shepherds in schools today. God wants there to be good shepherds to lead the flock. Many of us here are called to be shepherds in some form or fashion some more explicitly than others, but God wants those shepherds to listen to His voice and to shepherd in accord to His divine will. If we are called to be shepherds we must spend time with Jesus the Good Shepherd. We must listen to His voice. We must listen to Him to find out how to Shepherd our people and how  we can shepherd them well and if we’re called to be shepherds and we don’t listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, woe to us. Woe to us if we shepherd our people poorly.”