“The Lord is my Shepherd!” What a beautiful, comforting sentiment. At least, until you think more closely about what it means. Then, it becomes a challenge!
Our picture of a shepherd might come from memories of One Man and His Dog on the BBC – the shepherd whistling and shouting to a dog who nips at the hooves of the sheep and rounds them up into a pen. Middle Eastern shepherds worked rather differently – the sheep would recognise their shepherd’s voice and he would lead them out, calling them by name.
Without a shepherd, sheep can do what they like, go wherever they like – and stray into danger. (This week, news broke of sheep forced to swim while stranded in Morecambe Bay!) With a shepherd, the sheep are safe – but their freedom is limited, too. They are no longer free to go wherever they wish – the shepherd will lead them away from danger and towards safe pastures.
So when Jesus is faced with a well-meaning and curious crowd, a flock of people who have turned out in the hope of receiving a healing or witnessing a miracle, he sets out to lead them to a place where they might not want to go. Yes, he heals those in the crowd who are sick. But he challenges them, too. He speaks about God’s Kingdom – he asks them if they are willing to be faithful followers of God. They already know the Jewish Law, with its command to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. But will they embrace it?
Here in Pontypridd, as our schools break up and the University concludes its graduation week, Britain moves into the holiday season. For a few weeks we might be free of the constraints of our employment or studies. And the way we choose to use our freedom is an excellent test of how truly the Lord has become our shepherd. For while in the rest of the year, we must juggle our religious commitments with work and family, on holiday we have a chance to re-prioritise. So: How much of your holiday are you going to spend with your Father – that is, with the One Jesus called Father?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples to go aside to a quiet place, to rest and enjoy the silence. Have you planned to have a holiday crammed full of activities, or will you make space for silence? There are plenty of quiet places to go to – we have local retreat houses in Brecon and Porthcawl, Cwmbrân and Hereford, who would all be delighted to offer you a Quiet Day. Or if you’re enjoying a staycation in Pontypridd, why not decide to come to a midweek Mass or visit Friday adoration? These are the quiet waters where your Father wishes to refresh your soul.
If you are travelling abroad, remember Jeremiah’s words: God loves and cares for his flock even when scattered among many countries! Our Second Reading reminded us that Jesus has broken down barriers, making all his followers one family. Whichever country you go to, your spiritual family will be there already. Are you planning to meet with them? Will you make time to visit a church, even if your travel plans make it impossible to be there for Sunday Mass? If the country has ancient Christian heritage sites, will you visit them?
Wherever you plan to go, I have a small gift for you to take with you. On Easter Sunday this year, I passed on Cardinal O’Brien’s call for every Catholic to wear a cross as a sign of faith. The altar servers are now passing out lapel badges which are my gift to you: they carry the cross of St David. If anyone you meet during your vacation should ask why you are wearing a cross, you can say it is because you are a Christian. If they ask you why it is this particular kind of cross, say you are from Wales, and you are proud of the heritage of Wales as a Christian nation.
Of course, wearing a cross does not automatically make us followers of Christ. The decision to follow is one that each one of us must make when we hear the voice of the shepherd: to follow to safety, or to stray in peril.
The way we use our vacation time, when we have more freedom to choose priorities for ourselves, will reveal much about our true faith. Any dismay we might feel at the thought of making God part of our holiday plans, shows us how unwilling we are to yield our lives to God. The Lord is not your trip advisor, asking you to consider His recommendations and adopt 7 out of 10 commandments. The Lord is your shepherd, inviting you to follow him on the only path which leads to eternal life.
So consider it! Try something different this year – take God on holiday with you! If we treat “giving God some time” as another onerous duty, our love for God will diminish. If we embrace it as our first priority and an act of love, we will not be disappointed: God promises that he cannot be outdone in generosity.
Are you one of the crowd in today’s Gospel, a sheep without a shepherd? Or are you a disciple who truly loves God with all your heart? By the end of your vacation, you will know the answer.
This sermon was partly inspired by Pope Benedict’s meditations on Christian holidays.