The pen was about the size of a small playground. That’s because it was actually a play yard, and it was adjacent to a pre-school. Half a dozen sheep lounged there, soft and cuddly white wool, rich dark eyes and a quiet malaise near melancholy as they chomped on the grass. They were temporary residents, and I had a perch on the fence to observe their goings on and occasionally refill the water trough. I was simply watching their world, not part of it, and wondering a thousand things about how the natural and human worlds are intertwined, how connections are formed between and among us, and how choices are made from the most mundane (what to eat and when) to the most complicated (what to do with the time and the lives we have). Into that reverie, unfolding a story, were the sheep who simply seemed to exist, to satisfy their needs and to get along with one another in a way that was neither competitive nor denying of each other. Enter the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. It is all about the Good Shepherd. But this time, when I looked more closely, something else stood out. In this liminal space of life, this is really all about connections and perceptions, trust and confidence in one another, a sense of belonging, and the hope that enables survival in a world and life that offers both joys and suffering.
Each reading offers a different dimension of that theme. The first displays the presence of a gentle caring God calling us to be conscious of one another, aware of Him. The second gives the cozy comfort of Psalm 23, a God who truly loves and a people who are fully confident in His love and protection throughout the challenges of life. There is a tenor to the lines that confides the emotional roller coaster that life can be, the traumas that life can present. And there is the steadiness of a tone of survival, even of becoming, as the challenges are navigated one by one.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff that give me courage….
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
The second reading is a reassurance of all that, that Jesus himself is the live wire connection among us. Finally, there is the Gospel that clearly defines Jesus’ mission and relationship to people: he is the caretaker, the teacher, the empathetic and compassionate one. He mentors, connects, challenges and explores with the sheep. There is a kindness undergirding it all, the sense that each of us is more than our flaws, more than our grief and better than our limitations.
Remembering those moments perched on the fence above the pen, the questions that surfaced and the ease with which the sheep adjusted to the play yard, reminds me that life is both mysterious and memorable, but having that trust in and companionship of a Shepherd makes all the difference.