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Mercy and Good Shepherding

I don't know about you? But by the Fourth Sunday of Easter, it feels like most of the best Resurrection stories have been told. It sometimes seems a little jarring to shift gears from Easter themes to the Good Shepherd. We turn in this ancient season to what the resurrection means. Pope Francis’ strong emphasis on the link between mercy and evangelization has cast new light on the risen Christ in the world as the Good Shepherd.

In the Gospels, the risen Jesus returns to gather his disciples, who were scattered like sheep when he was arrested and executed. His first words are to offer them his peace — total forgiveness for their cowardice and flight in his hour of need. Like a shepherd, Jesus calls each by name and draws them close.

For any who have wandered away or feel abandoned by the church or respectable society, this Sunday is hope. The thought that someone is out searching for us, eager to rescue us from the brambles of human temptation and entanglement, to bind up our wounds, lift us onto strong shoulders and carry us home — it is a comforting image. It certainly beats the more judgmental message of too many church folks who expect the casualties to crawl in off of the battlefields if they want care, after first being reprimanded for going astray.

The pope sent out a call last week for a holy year of mercy. It was echoed by Robert McElroy, the new bishop of San Diego in his installation homily. Mercy is after all first aid, no questions asked. The pope’s vision of a merciful church does not dismiss the need for justice or accountability. He simply puts mercy first. The prodigal son, in Luke’s ultimate lost sheep story, might never have come home if he thought his father would only scold, belittle and punish him. In his desolate state, the son must have sensed that his father was grieving for him and wanted him to turn homeward. In fact, the story suggests that it was the father’s longing, his daily walks to the gate to see if his son was on his way, that prompted the son to consider coming home.

The Good Shepherd will not give up on a single sheep. He knows each one by name, loves them so much he is willing to lay down his life to save each one. There is no talk of “cutting his losses” or the kind of “tough love” that lets a rebellious child suffer the consequences of his own actions before there can be any intervention or negotiated return home. God’s unconditional love leaps into action at the first sign of regret or repentance. As Pope Francis has said, “We tire of asking for God’s forgiveness, but God never tires of offering it.” God’s name after all is Mercy.

Thanks to Pat Marrin’s article “Shepherd of Mercy” for much of today’s reflection. This 4th Easter Gospel is for anyone responsible for others. This includes parents, teachers, priests and bishops. Anyone entrusted with others who are vulnerable and need guidance has a model in the Good Shepherd. Their office cannot be just control or direction from a distance. A true, model shepherd goes among the sheep with humility and gentleness until he or she, in Pope Francis’ words, “smells like the sheep.”

So on this “smelly’ Sunday of Easter we give thanks to be part of the community of the risen Christ. But it is less a comfort zone than a staging area for God’s mission of mercy to the world. We at St. Mary’s are ready for the challenge. Keep us in prayer as we discern new pastoral council leadership in the coming days.

A gentle week.

Fr. Michael

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