Sunday, July 22, 2012

Port Lincoln

One year ago today I was coming to the end of my time in Port Lincoln, South Australia.  It remains one of my fondest memories of tertianship and, with the exception of the long retreat, the most formative experience.  I remain grateful to the parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels for their reception and friendship.  All of the photos included after the homily were taken one year ago yesterday in what was the last field trip.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time  
22 July 2012
Jer 23:1-6
Ps 23
Eph 2:13-18
Mk 6:30-34

We are not too familiar with shepherds here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  We may see the occasional sheep on a farm but I don’t remember anyone at Plymouth High School back in the 60's whose vocational goal was to become a shepherd.  In the Ancient Near East shepherds performed vital services. Thus we have the frequent image of the shepherd in scripture.  

Shepherds cared for the flocks that supplied food and wool in multiple ways. They guarded the sheep against the threat of wild animals.  They protected the sheep from the hands of rustlers. They moved them from pasture to pasture in search of food.  And they kept them from becoming lost in the wilderness.  It is no wonder that the shepherd became a metaphor for those who exercised care and authority over others.  The shepherd is a mix of contrasting if not contradictory roles and functions. 

The shepherd is a leader but also a companion.  The shepherd is strong and capable of defending the flock, but he is also gentle with the flock, knowing its condition and adapting himself to its needs.  The shepherd prods the sheep to keep them on the right path but also searches for and returns the lost sheep to the flock. The responsibilities of the shepherd are grave.
In the reading from Jeremiah we heard how many of Israel’s kings were unfaithful to their roles as shepherd of the people. They revolted against God for the sake of expediency. Today we might say they revolted for political reasons so as to push an agenda or to line their own pockets.  Their primary concern was not the flock but themselves.  Sadly we are only too familiar with leaders like that at all levels of governance.  They left the people to scatter and disperse. They were lost without direction or example.  Things haven’t changed much. 

Think of the high profile financial “shepherds” who took good care of themselves with no concern for those they were to serve.  Recall the tragic stories of parents, a unique form of shepherd, leaving young children alone while they went out to drink, do drugs, or “to take care of my needs.” Both the famous and the lowly who violate the duties of shepherd are worthy of contempt. 

We are all called to be shepherds in ways unique to each of us.  The vocation to care for others is a serious one.  It involves work, worry, and constant vigilance.  The care may be of the other’s financial resources, their health, their education, or the day-to-day needs of a family.   Woe to the irresponsible shepherd. 

Psalm 23 is the most well known and beloved in the entire psalter.  No other psalm has such a central place in the hearts of people of both strong faith as well those of uncertain, or even no, faith.  Even those who never voluntarily enter a church or synagogue have found this psalm speaking to them on occasions as varied as a wedding or a funeral, or even during a movie.  Its appeal lies in its simplicity as much as in its depth.   

The psalm’s images are comforting:  a shepherd who meets the sheep’s needs for rest, cool water, green pastures and protection.  These images appeal to our own deepest yearnings for peace and safety, for rest and care, yearnings that are increasingly difficult to satisfy in this modern world, a world in which many leaders seem more intent on caring for themselves than the needs of the people they are sworn to serve.

The reading from Mark occurs at a transitional moment in the Gospel.  The apostles had returned from their mission.  They had taken nothing for the journey: no food, no sack, no money.  They stayed in only one house.   As the Gospel noted, “They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  The apostles returned excited and enthusiastic.  One can imagine the conversation.  They were probably interrupting as they tried to top each other’s stories, commenting on how tired they are and so on.  The image suggests medical students returning from their first day working in the hospital.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, recognized their excitement.  But he also recognized their need for rest, a need that would be frustrated. Jesus suggested that they go away to rest.  But the crowd had other ideas.  Despite their taking a boat, the crowd scampered on foot to get to the place where they knew Jesus was going before He got there.  That is when we see the Good Shepherd.  We see what we are called to be.  We see how we are called to respond to the needs of others be they family, friends, or strangers. 

“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them . . . . .” Hunger and fatigue took a backseat to the needs of the sheep.  Food and rest would come later. 

Like the lives of Jesus and his apostles as told in the Gospel our existence is alternately trouble and calm, work and rest, joy and sorrow.  A full life, like the description of the shepherd, seems to demand the coexistence of contraries: chaos and calm, search and embrace, desire and satisfaction.  When we succeed, even briefly, it is only to begin the cycle again.   Advance and regression are joined together. They are purified and brought into harmony only in God.  True rest is not passivity but the fulfillment of one's mission. 

St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity is one of the prayers a Jesuit novice learns early in his novitiate.  It summarizes these readings.   It lays out in simple terms how we are to go about being shepherds for others.  It tells all of us how we are called to live our lives. 

O Lord, teach me to be generous
To serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost
To fight and not to heed the wounds
To toil and not to seek for rest
To labor and not to ask for reward
Save that of knowing I do your holy will
On one of my last days in Port Lincoln Gayle and Elisabeth, along with Miriam and Basil (this last is a dog) took me to a small museum on the other side of town.   It recorded the early days of PL and the fishing industry.  

The stove was part of an early household.  I'd like to see the Iron Chefs cook on this.
The end of July in Australia is the middle of winter.  These boats were overturned for the season. 
A camera makes me a voyeur.  This was taken through a ships window, hence the reflections in the foreground.  An interesting still life of potentially toxic products.
The view through a rusted hull.  
The lines of this mast against a black background are a reminder of the beauty of geometry.  Changing the photo to black and white and then applying a red filter gives the impression of a photo at night when, in fact, it was somewhere around noon, as if obvious in the other shots.
+ Fr Jack, SJ, MD

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