I want to start this morning by sharing a story with you that comes from Father Gregory Boyle, who runs Homeboy and Homegirl ministries in Los Angeles, for individuals who were formerly in a gang. Father Boyle writes,
Lula grew up in our office. He’s in his early twenties now and has a son. He was ten when he first wandered in. I’d met him in Aliso Village at the annual Easter egg hunt. This was no White House lawn affair, just something thrown together very last minute by the ladies of the parish, but the kids seemed to have a good time. Lula was a skinny kid, who looked straight out of the Third World, undernourished, filthy. He was standing by himself, and no one seemed to include him or pay him much attention, except when they’d steal his eggs.
“My name is Luis, but everybody calls me Lula,” he said.
I remember this a week later, when I pull up to an intersection and see him entering the crosswalk alone, his walk clumsy and self-conscious. I roll down my window and catch his attention. “Hey, Lula!”
You would have thought I had electrocuted him. His whole body spasms with delight to be known, to be called, to hear his name uttered out loud. For his entire trip through the cross walk, Lula kept turning back and looking at me, smiling.
For me, this story captures the essence of what can otherwise be a fairly nonsensical reading. Talk of sheep and shepherds made a great deal more sense to those who were part of an agrarian culture. But to us, in Arlington, a bit more translation is needed. I want to try and unpack it backwards, through the example of Father Boyle.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who began his ministry in downtown Los Angeles, in a neighborhood that is one of the most saturated by gangs and subsequent violence, of any zip code in the country. As a young priest, he experienced the overwhelming loss and devastation gangs were causing in the neighborhood and the parish, and decided he would end gang violence. As though this was not something anyone had previously thought of, Father Boyle decided he had the disposition to enact such a change. As you might imagine, this was an utter failure. But, Father Boyle’s ministry has now been thriving for decades because of a key theological shift he made after his early years of frustration and failure. Instead of seeking to fix the individuals who were members of gangs, Father Boyle sought to love them for exactly who they were.
He started listening to the stories of young men and women who had grown up surrounded by violence. He started to understand the tattoos and clothing as masks for a lack of a secure sense of self. He started to get curious about the last time these young men and women had been reminded that they were loved, and found that many of them had never heard those words uttered to them, ever. He began to understand that many of these young people had sought out life in a gang because it was the only form of belonging and connection to which they had been exposed. Father Boyle’s focus shifted completely. Instead of providing a corrective path for wayward teens, he began to simply get to know them as individuals, and to share God’s love with them.
What has transpired is truly remarkable. Homeboy and Homegirl ministries serves over 10,000 former gang members annually in the Los Angeles area. Individuals formerly involved in gangs or incarcerated encounter a ministry based on mutual kinship and love that provides tattoo removal services, opportunities for employment, anger management and parenting classes. When he stopped trying to fix people, and started focusing on loving them instead, the opportunities were too many in number to count.
The character of God’s love is not corrective or consequential. The character of God’s love is specific and abundant. God’s love builds trust. Father Boyle has built a thriving ministry based on trust and love. He is the model of a modern day shepherd.
I often return to this story I shared with you at the beginning about Lula, because it’s so simple, but so clear. To remember one’s name, to remember one’s identity, to celebrate how beloved we are by God, is a divine act. This is what it looks like to be the Good Shepherd: to cause another to dance through the crosswalk with delight and gratitude. To know God’s people and call them by name.
Holy Scripture is full of references to God as shepherd tending the flock, which resembles God’s people. The shepherd knows each member of the flock, and somehow knows when one has gone astray, and displays care so extraordinary that chasing after a lost sheep is always worthwhile. The thing we may not realize though, about these peaceful icons of God as shepherd, is that it’s actually a fairly dramatic analogy. One historian describes it in this way, “The life of the shepherd is dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.For Jesus to say “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it.”That is never captured in the tranquil paintings of Jesus overlooking sheep on the hillside.
This invocation of Jesus as shepherd tells us something important about the nature of God! Or, as one scholar says, “The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does, rather than on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are.”No matter how we found our way to God, we are God’s own. God delights to name our belovedness and remind us of how we belong.
We all need these reminders, constantly. It is not just the young men and women who grew up in tough circumstances in a run down neighborhood in Los Angeles. Notice, when the wolf appears, presumably to eat the sheep, the predictable does not transpire! Rather, the danger the wolf presents is to scatter the sheep, to disperse the herd. To be counted among the flock is to know and trust in the leadership the shepherd provides. When the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, they are reassured that they are headed in the right direction. Together, they will reach their destination. The great danger in this scenario and in our life as Christians is the Gospel of self-worth. It is easy to succumb to the allusion that if we are simply extraordinary enough, we can go it alone. To stand grounded in our connection to God and one another is to trust in who we know God to be.
I realize this metaphor doesn’t fully hold up in our individualistic society. We would be loath to be counted as a mere one among a flock and not stand out. But it’s the gathered nature of the sheep that gives the shepherd its’ power over the flock. As God’s people, we come together on Sunday morning to be reminded of who God is. We gather together to be reminded of how our identity is shaped by our connection to God, and to one another. We come together to rejoice in God’s authority as creator, redeemer, and sustainer.
And, that is not enough. This is one of those readings in which we would do well to locate ourselves in multiple roles. We are the sheep to God’s shepherd. To be shepherded by God, means that we are to constantly marinate in the love God has for us.
And, we are called to share in this work of shepherding others closer to God. Father Boyle captures the essence of his ministry in this way, “Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to him.”To share in this role of shepherding God’s people is to gain the trust of the sheep, so that they might follow you closely to experience the “no matter whatness of God.”
Fellow-shepherds, it is our gift to embody the essence of our creator and take our share in reflecting God’s nature. Fellow sheep, you are known and beloved.
The Rev. Beth Magill