The Shepherd’s Task

A drenching gray frames spring green even in morning’s early breaths. Somehow, the layers of being converge into meaning in the restless round of seasons. So it is now. All about us are the brilliance of new beginnings tucked next to the decay of what is spent, and slowly the world takes it all in even as it evolves past now into tomorrow. Scattered like carelessly planted tulip bulbs, what is new must find its place even as it shrugs towards becoming past. Subtle observations emerge from all this: that patience is a treasure, suffering is worth enduring and pathways await. Good Shepherd Sunday has all these nuances.

“Shepherd” has as many connotations as “spring rain”. Meaningful to some and largely disconnected from others, there is a sense of responsibility, of honor, embedded in the term “shepherd”. And yet, there are simple foundational truths behind all that. The Shepherd establishes a connection, gives meaning to the task of guarding these sheep, and embraces it as a tiny part of a much larger collective whole. There is no grandiosity in the job itself yet there are layers of trust involved in pursuing it. Courage and confidence, honesty and truth are critical elements in the role and yet we categorize it as something far simpler than all that, diminish it to something reserved for simpletons or loners. Consider the connections: owners, shepherds, sheep, clients, buyers, breeders….Each needs the other to live the role.

This year, on Good Shepherd Sunday, with the visible wounds of the world and its peoples so tangible, it is especially meaningful. The vivid imagery of Psalm 23 lyrically allures to the consideration of the possibility that there is someone with us in the most peaceful and life-giving as well as the darkest and most difficult moments of life. Poetically, it engages in the ebb and flow of a human life’s seasons and promises the more that every soul seeks. “The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I shall want” intimates more than contentment and trust. There is confidence in relationship, courage to face the next steps, a Buddhist-like simplicity to sustain attentiveness and focus. The words confide an intimacy based on the certainty of connection without condition.

In the vast forces of cultural change and shifting norms, the transformation of identity and redefinitions of personhood and being, there is a temptation to reject the wisdom of centuries past, to scoff at the concepts of divinity or gods, to retreat from the existence of mystery in human life. It is understandable and maybe the journey towards deeper understandings of who we are and why we are here and what we actually do to and with and for one another. And maybe it is also the time to find new footing in this stage, to rearrange what was into what it can be until it is time for someone else to take over. That sort of sounds like the task of a Shepherd to me: patient, enduring, moving.

Emmaus Story

Every night when I come in, there is a tea-light waiting for the snap of a match to ignite its flame. That tiny glows warms the room and calmly breathes life into the fragments of a day and very simply and sturdily speaks of the presence of God. And so the story of a day unfolds there: the encounters, the frustrations, the surprises and the memories reassembled with hands bigger than my own. Purposefully, there are new moments, or old ones understood differently, and somehow edge closer to the truths of the day. It is about beginning to perceive rather than simply see, to understand rather than simply experience. The older I grow, the more aware I am that my life is not yet complete, the more these quiet moments allow me to touch my core belief: God is.

The rumblings of a secularized America have provoked conflict and courage and, in a quest for tolerance and peaceful co-existence, allowed us to become less tolerant, more condemnatory and increasingly violent in words and actions. Education and media has encouraged us to embrace the power of voice, to speak truth to power, and we have allowed that to derail listening and learning from one another. In dismissing one another and thinking we understand, we have undermined opportunities to discover what is really going on and just exactly who we are to and for each other. We have lost sight of what really matters, deprived ourselves of the chance to be honest and respectful towards others and to allow that privilege to others as well.

Maybe it is time to consider the miracle of the Emmaus story. “Emmaus” as a word carries a weighty connotation for those familiar with the Gospel. It is rich and full of wonder, of epiphanies and joy. For the unfamiliar, Emmaus recounts despondent disciples in the days after Passover, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus chronicling the details as they walk. Joined by a stranger, the conversation broadens and deepens. This stranger leads them through a thousand years of stories and predictions that brought all of them into this space. And when, finally, they sit down to eat together, the stranger reenacts what they have heard about: the breaking of the bread. Jesus is recognized for who He is, and the disciples revel in the awareness. That moment of epiphany disappears just as He does. The wonder is compounded by the understanding that He may not always be with us, but He will never leave us. The breaking of the bread is the gathering moment, the space where everything can be broken open for exploration and discovery, for new understandings. It is ours for the taking, for daring to walk along that road. It is ours to remember that there were no recriminations, no judgmental tone from Jesus. It was about kindness and listening and sharing. Maybe, in the great arc of centuries and the smaller one of life spans, it is that focus on the life-changing encounters and relationships that matter. Maybe, as we lurch into this highly technological world, we will find that it is the personal encounter that really makes the big difference..

To believe

There is a certain discord in shifting norms, levels of substantiative social change accelerated by some and excoriated by others. And in the flush of the energy around all that, the swirl of questions and the certainty of necessity, there rests the very ordinary persons who live it all out in their daily choices and decisions. We are engulfed in it now in tangible expressions and vibrant and public expressions of what was once private and personal. The various layers of change are visible in social media debates, surveillance and intelligence leaks, phone usage and habits, demonstrations and protests, court cases and decisions, online and virtual encounters. There is fuel for it in the voracious desire for self-care, comfort and ease. We have become skeptical at best of the social institutions that once held the many threads of our communities together; we are forging a new world without the perceived strictures of the past. And yet, we are not quite sure what to believe, or who or why. Perhaps we are not very different than those who have gone before us, those who struggled to name and identify what they believed and so to act in accord with that vision and those values. Maybe, if allowed, the Gospel is actually a mirror to be seen and learned from.

This past week, listening to a short speech on the Buddhist teaching of inter-being, I was struck by its resonance with the reality of Christian life, of following the simplicity of the Gospel mandates in living with self and others. Each is a compelling invitation to look at both the significance and beauty of self as well as the significance and beauty of others, of the world around us. Each invites us to a trust that is sustained by the elasticity of perception and the possibilities for curiosity and acceptance. Each is a reminder of personal fragility and brokenness as well as personal power and forgiveness. Most of all, each is an invitation beyond the frenetic and frantically shifting norms to the deeper meaning of existence and a full appreciation for the evolving complexities of human existence.

Such was Jesus’ invitation to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples, in the days following his death and resurrection. He placed before them a choice, a decision: to believe what was experienced or to reject it as outlandish. In the tumult of life under Rome within a tight-knit subculture, he dared them to break out. He provided multiple instances for them to take the chance, to take up the message and the mission. He charged them to pass it on, and he even hinted at how resistant people would be. He also assured them of His constancy, His own mercy. And so He asked them to extend that to others.

Lingering with the readings on Divine Mercy, there is the clear sense that we are above all, a communal people. Now, with technology reshaping that understanding, there is the chance to deepen and develop that. There is also the seeming promise that trials will inevitably come our way, but we will not be alone. And then there are the Jesus words quoted in that Gospel: “Peace be with you.” Ours is a God who companions us through the rough terrain of what human experience. And offers us peace. Maybe it is time to listen.


The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Easter Sunday 2023, gives Mary Magdalene a central place: she is the bereaved, the grieving one, who discovers the stone rolled away from the tomb, who summons the disciples and ultimately is the first to see Jesus resurrected even though she did not recognize Him. Women celebrate the central role of Mary in this, and the privilege it indicates. Others find the subtle characteristics of humanity so powerful: the fear, the disbelief, and the empowerment, the community building. In so many ways, the Gospel charts the human stories for so many generations: journeys from disbelief to faith, from fear to courage and from ignorance to understanding.

This year, another theme and question emerges. The life of Jesus, his death and his resurrection stretch through millenia with telling and retelling, translations and new translations. There is a vivid accord that laces all of it together and that theme of unconditional love is powerful. And the accompanying questions: Is it better to be loved or to love? Or is it all one and the same ? The story, in this time of discord and disgruntlement, speaks simply about the most complicated to all simple things: love itself.

The story does not shy from the cruelty of human beings, from the flailing of ignorance or the reality of mob mentality. It does not shy from the failures of human beings, from the fear of identity threats or the righteousness of misplaced choices. But looking carefully, this story does not shy from the rigor of complex relationships like friendships and loyalty and the deeper commitments to persons, to truths and to blazing new trails. All that dances through the lines of each version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To really hear it, to explore it, is something most meaningful.

To stand with Mary outside the tomb, to run with her to summon the disciples….that is a moment of imagination and insight. To bend with Peter into the tomb, to know his shock and his realization. To speculate with all the disciples about what occurred. To be there again with a crying Mary and know the depths of what grief so cruelly demands. And to be with all of them as each moment with Jesus is recounted, each lesson recalled, every parable reclaimed. The Gospel enables us to do that, to join them and become part of the story. There is a certain thrill there, an insight that could have been elusive or unknown before. And too, the love that pervades the relationships and that Jesus’ choice embodies, that somehow becomes more real.

And so we stand with questions about love. What is it? How do we know it? How do we live it? How can we share it? How can we be that for each other? Can we dare to love to the point of grief? Can we dare to face fears? To verify stories and claims before we act? Can we seek one another out and speak one another’s names in profound recognition of each other? Dare we become part of the story? Are we an Easter people?


Palm is soft and pliable at the outset, flexible and easily folded into cruciforms. As a child, I watched my grandfather cut lapel size brooches from it, and I saw my father weave long skinny slices into larger crosses that he rested above his work bench each year. I never wondered why, really; there was a complicit understanding that each was a reminder of God’s presence in the world. And the palm, to me, welded as it is in the Gospel stories, was like the garland and confetti of modern times: celebratory and congratulatory. But like the richly textured palm, the Gospel story, the readings, offer so much to consider.

Hidden behind the pageantry of Palm Sunday is the stark simplicity of words: the humility of humanness, the need to depend on one another and God, the fears of abandonment that are so much a part of humanity, the pain of betrayal and the inevitability of death are all part of the story of this day. Dipping into any part of it is to hold a mirror to the reality of human experience. These are all things so much a part of life, of who we are. And it is easy in the frenzy of mediocrity to skip right over it and indulge in the distractions that cascade about us. The palm, small and simple, is an invitation to focus on what really matters in life, to dare to realize that we are not alone on the path.

Palm is about companionship and even about legacy. It is also about realizing all of us are on life-journeys. None of us are better than others. All of us make mistakes and bad calls. We fail one another; palm is the reminder that God does not fail us. The Gospel reverberates with the features of humanity: the wily fears and plans of the Pharisees, and the nervous suspicions of the disciples at the Passover table, Jesus’ intuition and sense of betrayal, the drama and cruelty of punishment, even the bloodthirsty crowd. It spills over with complexity as well: we are all of these things in some circumstances, none of them in others. And yet, we are undeniably like those persons who have gone before us, and the deeper truths of the Gospel story surge through our lives if we allow it. It is that time of reflection, the time to look into the mirror and discover where we really are and who we really are. The other side of that is to realize that everyone else is just learning how to be human as well. We can cower in fear, castigate in anger, destroy in righteousness. We can also step back, reconsider options, suffer in silence and make better choices. Rallying to the chant of the mob in the Gospel speaks to the situations and trials of today. Is it the voice of the mob compelling an opinion and impelling action? Or is there higher ground to be found somewhere? Isn’t it about choice? This year, the palm gently shaped into crosses speaks of both the complexity and simplicity of human life, of the possibility of walking tenderly and humbly with one another and with God.