“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. 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. The kings, priests and prophets of ancient Israel were called to ensure that their people only worshipped the God of Abraham and avoided pagan religions – but they weren’t always faithful to that mission. How does God react? I’m not sure if it’s a threat or a promise, but Jeremiah says, look out – God is coming in person to sort things out!
God does come to us, in the person of Jesus. Just like the rest of us, God-made-flesh gets tired after a long day and needs some space to chillax with his friends. But there’s no rest for Jesus on this day – the crowds have found him, and he accepts that with good grace. When he sees this 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?
We hear these words from Scripture as the schools prepare to break up, and 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, when on holiday we have a chance to re-prioritise. 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?
Sadly, this year, “rest” and “holiday” are two words which don’t sit together as easily as they should. After last month’s shootings in Tunisia, many of us are thinking carefully about our holiday plans. Some holidaymakers have made a point of returning to Tunisia or other resorts in Islamic countries, as a sign of solidarity with the innocent locals, or to demonstrate that they will not be cowed by terrorists. Even if you are thinking twice about your holiday plans, remember that statistically, you have a much greater chance of being involved in a traffic accident than being caught up in an at of terrorism, in the air or on the ground.
If you are travelling abroad, I offer you these words of comfort, from Jeremiah: 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?
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. 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.
So consider it! Try something different this year – take God on holiday with you! There’s no need to be sheepish – just let God be your shepherd, and relax.
Adapted from a previous sermon.