Fourth Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey


Fourth Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18 

What is it like to be shepherded? Today, we call it mentoring. It is first, knowing that we don’t know and want to know. And finding and following someone who does know. And that “someone” must have certain qualities we can trust.

Jesus tells us that what distinguishes the good shepherd is the cardinal virtue of fortitude. This is the virtue that allows us to endure evil and to persevere in pursuing the desired good even when it is difficult. At what good do we persevere? We persevere at whole-hearted love for the Father by living His way of life.

We know that this is heroic. But it is only heroic if it is done for the sake of others. Where does such heroism come from? It is the grace of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. “Hope”, founded on awareness of our need and His power, makes us receptive of that grace. Those are qualities that can be trusted!

An experience of personal failure, of the Father’s forgiveness, and of conversion is any shepherd’s greatest asset. It explains his or her devotedness and willingness to face danger. As a result, the shepherd nurtures his or her flock on this principle: We grow by our willingness to face and rectify our errors and convert them into assets.

Inevitably, perseverance implies endurance of setbacks. It is because of this that he teaches the principle of willingness to face and rectify errors: Doing that will require fortitude. And it will require a sub-virtue of the cardinal virtue of temperance: humility.

We follow Christ in the dura et aspera of monastic life. It is not surprising that fortitude and temperance come together in the fourth step of Humility. Fortitude and Temperance are virtues of personal discipline. They help us moderate emotions so that we can think straight and act in accord with straight thinking. They help us take up our cross and follow Christ, the Good Shepherd.

These two virtues of personal discipline are demanding. So Benedict tells us to be mindful of our ultimate end. Yes, the hard and the difficult will be painful and discouraging at times. At such times we may ask ourselves, “Do I really believe this stuff?” And we’ll survey our life with God and apart from Him. And we’ll look deep into the heart and find the answer there: “Yeah, I do. I believe this stuff.” And we’ll look still deeper, past the sentiment. We’ll find in that deeper place an insatiable desire that represents a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We’ll recognize it as the voice of God. And we will endure evil and pursue the difficult good.



Fourth Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1Pt 2:20b-25; Jn 10:1-10

“I am the gate. Whoever enters through Me will be saved… and find pasture.”

As we talked about yesterday, the gospels of this past week have been about boundaries. Holiness consists in respecting boundaries. In a class I took years ago, a liberal, gay priest once told me that I had to “learn to think outside the box.” Remembering the 25 or so years I had lived away from the church, I smiled and responded that thinking outside the box was for wimps; I used to live outside the box! Inside the box is better!

What’s the difference? Jesus tells us the difference is the same as that between Himself and the Pharisee’s in their roles as shepherds. Jesus, who is inside the box, unselfishly gives of self; the Pharisee’s, who are outside the box, are selfish as are thieves.

The difference is also that a box has boundaries. Boundaries help us live unselfishly. A boundary is between the outside, the myriad of things that can excite just self, and the inside- the heart. The significance of what is outside is experienced inside, in the heart. It is an experience of value, of what matters. How much it matters depends on what the heart is set on, on what matters most. When one knows what matters most to the heart the boundaries almost naturally erect themselves to allow focus, devotion to that One Thing.

We know what the One Thing is when we hear the voice, when He calls one’s own name. To be called by name is to be called by one’s total life experience, by what is in one’s heart.

Selfishness and unselfishness both have a place in anyone and everyone’s heart. How do we know which voice we are responding to: the shepherd or the thief? Jesus tells us that the thief “climbs.” That means he exalts himself. Pride does not care for boundaries. If one has not been deliberately living a bounded, focused life one will respond to the voice of selfishness.

But Jesus and the pastors of His choosing enter by the gate, at the level of the earth. They are “down-to-earth.” The sheep are secure in the enclosed area and at the sound of His voice. It is always the secure who are humble.

And that security seems to be the point of Jesus’ teaching. Fear drives selfishness. Fear is often a substitute for guilt and guilt inhibits the capacity to love, to give unselfishly. It leaves one in the bondage of self. The boundaries of the shepherd, of our Christian and Cistercian way of life, free us of the bondage of self. Benedict’s steps of humility form interior boundaries that liberate us. They give us a box to live in! Decay in that boundary is a sign of disorder within. If we stay in the box we are promised a perfect love that casts out fear.

In ending his Rule, St. Benedict condenses all of the ascetic program into a single sentence of absolute devotion to Christ: “Let nothing whatever be preferred to Christ, Who deigns to bring us all to everlasting life.”



Fourth Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12, 1 Jn. 3:1-2, Jn 10:11-18]

Fr. StephenWhile on a tour in the Holy Land an American accountant was surprised to see shepherds grazing their flocks on the hillsides without any fences just as they did two thousand years ago. He stopped to talk with one of them and offered him a wager: “If I tell you how many sheep you have on these hillsides will you give me one of them? And if I’m wrong by more than one or two, I’ll give you $100.” The shepherd was a betting man so he agreed. The CPA took out a pocket calculator, mentally divided the sheep into groups, and quickly added them up. “You have 94 sheep,” he said. Surprised, the shepherd nodded his head, “Yup, that’s right. I guess you win.” The American grabbed the nearest sheep and started to walk away. The shepherd stared at him and said, “Wait a minute. If I tell you what your occupation is will you give my sheep back?” Being a fair minded person the man agreed. The shepherd said, “I think you’re a government accountant who sits behind a desk all day without much experience of animals.” Now it was the American’s turn to be surprised. “Yes, that’s right,” he said, “but how did you know?” The shepherd replied, “If you put down my dog I’ll tell you.”

The Good ShepherdSheep haven’t changed in two thousand years. But shepherds have changed a lot. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it was an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory words, like bitter-sweet, deafening-silence, authentic-reproduction, or the House-ethics committee. In those days shepherds weren’t considered good. They were dirty. They were thieves. They were forbidden by Jewish law from being witnesses in a trial because they were such notorious liars. In Greek the oxymoron of a good-shepherd is even stronger. The Greek New Testament has three words for good: agathos, chrestos, and kallos. Agathos means moral goodness, sinlessness, as when Jesus said, “Only One is good,(Mt 19:17). Chrestos means goodness that is kind, helpful and friendly, as when Jesus said, “God is good even to the ungrateful and selfish,(Lk 6:35). Kallos means goodness that is beautiful, full of loveliness. We call beautiful handwriting “calligraphy,” kallos graphia. That is the word used for the good shepherd, he is both good and beautiful. Jesus is the shepherd whose goodness is ravishing beauty because he is divine and laid down his life for us.

Once there was a 19 year old British soldier in the Second World War who was so badly wounded his legs had to be amputated. He was a strikingly handsome lad, with blue eyes as bright as the sky, and a smile that won the hearts of all the girls who met him. The surgeon was grieved that this handsome lad would be maimed for the rest of his life. When the boy opened his eyes after the operation the surgeon said to him: “I am deeply distressed to tell you that you have lost both of your legs.” The boy closed his eyes for a moment and then replied, “Doctor, I did not lose them, I laid them down for the sake of my country.” The beauty of his mind, heart and will was even greater than the beauty of his body. Jesus is the good and beautiful shepherd who willingly laid down his life for his sheep.

Processional CrossMany images of Christ on the cross capture the horror of crucifixion. Other images look past the physical suffering and try to capture the kallos, the beautiful goodness of Jesus. On New Melleray’s processional cross, Christ is beautiful, shining gold. He is not sinking downward by the pull of gravity, with his head hanging toward the earth. Rather, he is already straining upward away from the cross, ascending toward his Father in heaven, only temporarily held back by the nails in his hands and feet.

So, when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” the beautiful shepherd, it was a huge oxymoron, like calling himself a good thief, a beautiful thief. But this oxymoron goes even deeper. Jesus said, “I AM.” He appropriated the name God revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush: “Tell them, ‘I AM’ sent me to you,(Exodus 3:14). Jesus identifies himself as “Yahweh the Good Shepherd.” This must have made his listeners drop their jaws in shocked astonishment, literally knocking the breath out of them. Not only did Jesus join all that is beautiful and good, even the name of God, with dirty, thieving, lying shepherds but he also made himself the ultimate oxymoron: Jesus-Yahweh, man-God, divine-mortal, impassible-sufferer, the one-true-good–beautiful-divine-crucified-criminal.

Then Jesus dropped another bombshell into their laps. He said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” It made absolutely no sense to them. Shepherds don’t lay down their lives to save flea infested, muddy, fecal plastered sheep. Human life is far more precious. He strained the oxymoron past the breaking point. Shepherds dying for sheep! Even worse, since Jesus appropriated the divine name as his own he was saying, “Yahweh lays down his life for his sheep.” This was too much for them. They said, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?(Jn. 10:20).

I know mine and mine know meWhy? Because we are the muddy, stupid, sinful sheep he is talking about. We haven’t changed in two thousand years. A third grade teacher quizzed her class in arithmetic. She asked, “If there are twelve sheep in a pasture and three of them go through a hole in the fence, how many will be left?” A young girl’s hand shot into the air and she said, “None.” A ripple of giggles swept through the classroom. The teacher called on a boy who said, “There would be nine left.” The girl retorted, “No there wouldn’t.” He said, “Yes there would.” The teacher intervened and asked the girl why none would be left. She replied, “Because if three sheep get through a hole in the fence they’ll all go through it.” Who will we follow? Other sheep? Or, the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd?

Jesus, draw us after you. You have ravished our hearts with your beauty. Oh, “let us see your face, let us hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is all beautiful,(Song of Songs 2:14) .