A Shepherd's Work Never Ends
I walked into to mass on Good Shepherd Sunday several minutes late. My youngest daughter had been up crying for an hour the previous night and for two hours the night before that. I had been alone with the kids for most of the day leading up to the mass. While the kids were mostly well behaved, I just managed to keep up with feeding them, washing dishes, and folding laundry. I scrambled to bring the laundry upstairs and pack the car and rush to the church for the Saturday evening mass. I walked into the church exhausted and sleep deprived, and I collapsed into a pew.
In the Gospel reading for the mass, Jesus said "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). As I sat in the pew listening to the remainder of the Gospel describe how Jesus is like a shepherd, I began to imagine what it would be like to be a shepherd. While I have never met a shepherd and have never experienced watching sheep, I did spend a weekend on a dairy farm when I was in college. I thought the experience of caring for sheep might be similar to the experience of caring for cows. One of my key takeaways from my time at the farm was that the farmer's work never ended. There are no weekends or holidays or vacations for a farmer. Even when they come inside for the evening, they are still aware of the animals outside. If a new calf is born or if the cows become unusually agitated, they require immediate attention and the farmer needs to be ready to jump up and return to the barn. They get up early in the morning to care for the cows and work late into the day in all kinds of weather.
While resting in the pew and contemplating a shepherd's life on this particular day, I found myself relating to the exhaustion that he must feel. A parent's work also never ends. There are no weekends or holidays or vacations from parenting. Domestic churches are open for business twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Even when we have a babysitter, part of our minds is still with our children. We are ready to jump up and tend to our children's needs when it is the middle of the night or when we are hungry or tired ourselves. A father gives his life to his children; a mother gives her life to her children.
It was comforting to me to imagine Jesus as a Good Shepherd, as a caregiver who never stops caring for us. Jesus does not take days off or call in sick. His presence in our lives is constant and unending. I thought also of the Gospel passage in which Jesus described a shepherd searching for one lost sheep. I imagined the shepherd herding the sheep home in the evening after a long, exhausting day of working in the hot sun. He is hungry and dirty and wants nothing more than to wash and sit down for a hot dinner. However, when the shepherd realizes one of his sheep is missing, he forgets his dinner and ignores his exhaustion and he goes out in search of the sheep. He gives his life to his sheep whenever they need him, whether or not it is convenient. A parent gives his or her life to the children, whether or not it is convenient. Our God gives his life to us whether or not it is convenient.
The next morning, I was getting ready to go out with my wife and I put on a nice shirt. While getting ready, I picked up the baby and she wiped her nose on the shirt. I sighed. Sometimes it seems I can't wear anything that doesn't have some snot or spit up or tears smeared across it. I remembered when we first brought home our first baby from the hospital. I changed her diaper less than five minutes after arriving and she thanked me with an arc of pee into a puddle on the diaper table. She wasted no time in reminding me that sometimes life in a domestic church can be messy and even gross.
As I continued reflecting on the Good Shepherd, I recalled the other dominant memory from my weekend on the dairy farm was bodily fluids. We came near to and into contact with almost every fluid possible including feces, urine, snot, milk, and even amniotic fluid. A good farmer - and a good shepherd I imagine - is willing to get his hands dirty. Jesus proved he is indeed our Good Shepherd in that he was willing to leave the glory of his heavenly throne to embrace our human messiness. In the incarnation he assumed a human body in all its grandeur and he accepted that sometimes that human body could be disgusting. He drew near to our messy politics, prejudice, squabbles, gossip, and violence. He accepted all of it out of love for each of us and out of a desire to care for and protect us all.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, I take comfort in knowing that God's loving care for me is constant and unending. He never takes a break from loving me and he is available to me any time I call. I take comfort in knowing that he draws near to me and cares for me even when my life is messy. At all times and in all circumstances, he stands ready to give his life to me.