Reflection for Saturday, September 24, 2011: 25th week in Ordinary Time.
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My father was a rancher who ran both sheep and cattle in Wyoming. When I was a small child I often went with him to visit the sheep camps, especially in the summer, when the sheep were taken from the ranch on the "flats" to the range in the Big Horn Mountains. The herds were trailed to the mountains, which means that over about a 10 or 12 day period they would walk from one open camp to the next across the public lands set aside for such use by many of the ranchers who were doing the same thing. It was critical that each herd was kept together, allowed to find feed and water, and protected from various predatory animals who especially liked the young lambs. The herders walked with the sheep, usually one herder to a flock, and he would have dogs to assist him. My Dad kept them supplied with food and other necessities, checking most days to see that all was well, and that the animals were moving along well until they came into the summer "home" camps in the mountains. When I road along with my Dad he would tell me stories of the "old days" when he was a young man, and he would often answer my questions about the things we were doing and seeing.||Today's first reading jarred loose a memory of those summer trips. On one morning I overheard Dad asking the herder about some losses other ranchers had sustained at a certain place on the trail. After our visit with that herder I queried my father about what kept the sheep together and how they were kept safe with just one person looking out for them. There were no fences or other boundaries around the flocks even at night, I pressed, how were they protected? Dad answered very succinctly that each flock was protected by a very attentive herder, who cared about each animal, and who was prepared to act on the animals' behalf at the very first hint of trouble. A slow ewe and her lamb might get separated from the herd and not know where to follow, so the herder would have to go back to find them. Some of the sheep might get into a stand of poison plants, or edge too close to sudden-drop offs of the terrain so the herder needed to know the lay of the land. Still others could get mired in the edges of small reservoirs that were quickly filled by rain or partially drying up with days of drying winds. The ewes and their young lambs had to move at a pace that the small ones could maintain - and once the lead animals caught the scent of the mountain air up ahead - some of them tended to head out too quickly. These had to be curbed until the rest of the herd could keep up. Coyotes, cougars, and wolves ranged up and down the trail, and snakes on the flats gave way to the possibility of larger predators in the mountains, so the herder had to be a competent marksman.|Today's first reading describes God promising that he will be the guardian of his people - even without material walls or physical boundaries to both contain them and protect them. God's stance toward the people of Jerusalem, according to the Psalm, is the loving, attentive and very wily shepherd who "surrounds" the flock with Divine care. So subtle is God's protection that we, who live in the "new Jerusalem" of the Church, do not feel contained or constrained - but we are utterly cared for as we pursue the trail of our lives with its multiple dangers. This is a remarkably consoling imagination until we understand the implications of the cost, for God, of such care. In the Gospel we hear Jesus once again warning his disciples that the day is coming when the Son of Man (the competent Shepherd) will be handed over to people of evil intent. We, like the disciples, are uneasy with the warning, but we might prefer confusion to an honest pursuit of the meaning of the words.|The sheep analogy limps, of course, when we realize that we are not a flock of ovine creatures. We are human creatures - still dependent, certainly, for protection and care beyond our abilities to provide for ourselves - but capable of recognizing the cost of such protection and extending gratitude to our Divine Protector. In fact, we are most authentically in relationship with God when we are deeply grateful for the constant solicitude God extends to us. The Christian life begins in recognition that God provides for us - from giving us life, to sustaining it from minute to minute - and it can only be genuinely lived in gratitude - for all that is, is gift.
University Ministry, Creighton University.
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