16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Woe to the shepherds...

There was a news item a while back reporting how the transit authority of a Connecticut town had asked its patrons to help them improve the services they were giving. They asked folks who used their transit system on a daily basis to use their cell phone cameras to document deteriorating facilities, graffiti and other inoperable systems or unacceptable conditions, and to forward them to their main offices so that they could work to provide better service and better conditions for everyone involved. They wanted their patrons to feel that they had valuable input and a stake in making their transit system the best in the area. After all, who would have a better knowledge of “daily life on the rails” than those who rode the trains day after day?
 
I couldn’t help but wonder what might become of the Church if our leadership took up the same challenge, and honestly asked our Catholic people to collaborate more fully in the day to day governance of the Church in an effort to improve the life of the community. I am not so naïve as to think that something like this could ever happen, however it certainly would do a lot to improve the image of Catholic leadership that has been projected over the last few years.
 
The warning of Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, bemoans the "shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture." The "shepherds" that Jeremiah is referring to are Israel's rulers. The nation's rulers, along with the priests and prophets, were supposed to play a role in helping the nation fulfill its vocation as God's people. Yahweh had carefully and lovingly shepherded Israel and Judah. But those whose duty it was to be His instruments were, for the most part, a huge disappointment. Without good and righteous leadership, the very covenant between God and the people had suffered. These rulers had not, as God wished, protected the frail and powerless. Poor leadership had brought disaster to the nation, for when Jeremiah was writing these words, the Babylonian captivity had already begun. Eventually, the royal line would end and the nation would be taken into exile. Before it was over, Jerusalem and its temple would lie in ruins.
 
When national or religious leadership is defective, the consequences for ordinary people are disastrous. 
 
Today we face a similar dilemma.  The Catholic Church seems, at times, to be infected with the perennial virus of a people in transition:  loss of perspective and disunity.  We know something about the agony of transition, of being scattered, of discontinuity and the turbulence of crisis.  But crisis has always triggered the best of Christian reflection.  The experience of change, of suffering, of hopes uncertain, can force us to dig deep into our tradition and to discover its power anew.
 
And despite the gloomy conditions that Jeremiah is highlighting among God's people, the reading has a breath of hope – and for this we can be grateful. While the rulers are blamed and threats are leveled against them, there is a promise for a brighter future. God is stepping in to "gather the remnant," to bring them back from exile, "to their meadow." To accomplish this renewal, God promises to appoint shepherds who will fulfill their appointed office faithfully. And He promises even more. A special shepherd will be sent, "...I will raise up a righteous shoot to David." A new time is coming, despite the present distress. God promises not to abandon the people, but to renew them and form a new community with faithful leadership. 
 
God's promise to the people is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus personifies God's compassion for both the disciples - who will shepherd in Jesus' name - and for the people - who need to be gathered and raised up. Jesus is more than a shepherd; he is God's compassion made flesh.
 
The compassion of Jesus the Shepherd is as intense now as it has always been for the needs of the crowds. He has not forgotten them; he has not forgotten us. He speaks to us all. Each of us has shepherding responsibilities to family, the young, the needy and to society in general. All of the baptized are sent out to speak and act in Jesus' name.
 
Our church needs healing and renewal. Each of us can play a part in this moment's potential for growth, by finding ways to speak to one another in His name for the good of the Church.  For only he can heal and renew what has been so wounded in his church. Only he can help us face what divides and destroys our communal bonds. Only he can feed us and heal us so that we can face what assails our church, be witnesses to hope and continue to preach, teach and heal as he did.
 
What's clear in our first and third readings this week is that a scattered and needy people are not on their own to figure things out or put their house in order by themselves. God, speaking through Jeremiah, makes it clear to a shepherdless people, "I myself will gather the remnant of the flock....I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them." Jesus is the proof that God is doing just that. Not only is Jesus assuming the shepherding task, but he is training others to carry on when he is gone.
 
It's obvious from the words of Jesus that our role as disciples of the Gospel is, first and foremost, that of reconciling, healing and uniting our people. We are to do that, not by using the power of the Gospel to instill fear and trembling; not to denigrate people who have differing points of view or belief-systems. Nor is it to exclude certain people from ministry, either because of gender or because their expression of faith doesn't live up to what we believe to be the norm.
 
We are not a shepherdless people. God will not leave us scattered, but rather will fulfill His promises to us: to be our Shepherd and to gather us together.