Today’s Gospel reading speaks of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him. However, I have two problems with that. First, who wants to be compared to sheep? Sheep are not the brightest of animals, and they must remain in their flock to defend themselves against even the most innocuous of predators. Second, how are the sheep, if that is how we are to be called, to hear the shepherd in this day and age? There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.
So let’s look at these issues. First, many who raise and nurture sheep would perhaps disagree with my assessment that they aren’t very bright. I have been told that sheep do have the innate ability to hear their master’s voice, and that they also innately wish to remain part of the flock. So we can see that sheep seem to know what it takes to survive. And maybe we don’t know that as well as we should. How often do we place a priority on being within earshot of our Master? How willing are we to remain part of the community in good times and in bad? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that this is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.
So what will it take to overcome my second objection? What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice? We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise. We who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or iPods implanted firmly in our ears? We who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives? If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to salvation?
The “elephant in the room” question, though, is this: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known? Today is the world day of prayer for vocations. And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood, religious life and the permanent diaconate. Because it is these vocations, and especially the priesthood, that are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world. This is a special, and difficult challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it. We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Peter and the other disciples were quickly finding out. But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for. People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will the voice of Jesus when I retire? Who will be that voice when there aren’t enough priests in our diocese for every church to have one? Who will preach the Word of God when Deacon Frank, Deacon Alex, Deacon Al and Deacon Dave retire?
We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.
Eleven years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation. Honestly, I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood. But I did not want to go. I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well. But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted. I had found out that there was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office. I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t going. And that day, the celebrant preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I already knew the answer to that question: God wanted me to go to that vocations open house that day, and so I did. Four months later, I was in seminary.
What about you? Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did, although perhaps it does. Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple. But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel. Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional. And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life. And for those who are fathers and empty nesters, it’s quite possible that you feel a tug in your heart to do something more to live the Gospel. Maybe you are being called to a life of service as a permanent deacon.
On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you. I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.