Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unexpected Shepherds

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is John 10:11-18. After you read this, please do follow the link to the Times story and watch the video; it's disturbing, but also very moving.


As the video begins, we watch two men walking across a fenced field. The taller man, Secel Montgomery Sr., has put his arm protectively across the back of his companion, who asks in a puzzled voice, “Why are we here?”

“Why are we here?” Secel says. “We’re going back to the building.” 

“Oh. Where’s the building?”

“That way.” Secel points with his free hand. “See that yellow building all the way over there, with all those windows on it?”

“Way down there?” The smaller man sounds baffled and slightly alarmed. “That’s where we’re going?”

“Yeah!” Secel’s voice is kind, patient. “That’s your building!”

“We’re going to go directly there?” 

“Di-RECT-ly,” Secel assures his friend. “NON-stop!”

Secel’s friend has Alzheimer’s, and Secel is his caretaker. In addition to guiding his charge home from walks, Secel helps him eat, helps him make his bed and brush his teeth and shower, changes his adult diapers. Secel takes his job seriously, and when he talks about the work, he emphasizes the importance of relationship. “You have to bond with them,” he says of Alzheimer’s patients. “They have to trust you, or it won’t work.”

Now, let me ask you a question. Does Secel sound like a good shepherd?

Yes, he sounds like a good shepherd to me, too. And yet many people would be shocked to hear him praised as a good shepherd, because Secel -- and his patients -- are also convicted murderers. The men are inmates of the California Men’s Colony, where specially trained prisoners like Secel take care of fellow felons who have developed dementia. The video clip is part of a New York Times story about the challenges of caring for these prisoners.

I think that most of us, when we think of the Good Shepherd, imagine perfect, sin-free Jesus carrying adorable fluffy lambs. But in the California Men’s Colony, both the shepherds and the sheep have done terrible things. They have brutally taken life. They are part of a despised underclass in our society, a group many of us would think twice about trusting, a group often deprived of civil rights even after release from prison. In many states, for instance, paroled felons are no longer allowed to vote.

If the idea of a convicted murderer as a good shepherd shocks you, consider the following. According to Lutheran theologian Joachim Jeremias, first-century shepherds were also a despised underclass, sneaky trespassers who grazed their herds on other people’s land. Because shepherds often pilfered the herds they were paid to tend, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk or animals from them, because whatever they sold was probably stolen property. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, said that no one should feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who had fallen into a pit. Deprived of civil rights, shepherds could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of a Good Shepherd would have been every bit as startling, even scandalous, as the idea of a Good Murderer is now. Jesus was trying to shock his audience. The Parable of the Good Shepherd, like the story of the Good Samaritan -- another tale about a scorned outcast defying stereotypes -- is designed to make us rock back on our heels and reexamine our assumptions. Jesus acknowledges that some shepherds are very bad eggs, but he asks us to withhold automatic judgment. What really makes people good, he asks us: their social standing, or their behavior? Their past deeds, or their current ones? Who better to protect the sheep: the upstanding judge in town, or the stigmatized shepherd who lives with the flock? Which will the sheep trust more?

There’s a reason why we hear this parable during Easter, the season of resurrection. The story reminds us that nothing we have done, however seemingly shameful, is useless. Everything can be redeemed, made holy, used for healing. The parts of our lives we most want to hide may be what someone else needs to know to trust us. The places in our lives we most hate -– prisons literal or metaphorical, bottomless pits of despair or misfortune -– may be where we can best help people still trapped and suffering. This is the principle of peer support that has made 12-Step groups so successful. “They have to trust you,” Secel says, “or it won’t work.” And Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Here’s another example. Quite a few years ago, during one of my volunteer shifts in the ER, a registration clerk begged me to help a particular patient, a young woman taking Methadone to kick a heroin habit. The Methadone clinic had decreased her dose too quickly, and now she was in withdrawal, in tremendous pain, screaming nonstop. The clerk said, "Junkies feel so horrible about themselves, and I'm scared this kid will just go out and use again. Please go talk to her."

But when I went into the room, the patient wouldn’t even look at me, and the young woman’s mother, tight-lipped, just shook her head. I realized that because I was a chaplain, they expected me to shame or lecture them.

The second bed in that room held someone else from a stigmatized population: a burly biker with prison tattoos, including swastikas. He'd been brought in by a woman -- wife or girlfriend -- who looked as if she'd had a hard life of her own. The Filipino nurse assigned to the room wanted nothing to do with those swastika tattoos, and the relentless noise from the screaming addict was unbearable. It was a terrible room, and I found myself avoiding it.

And then I went by the room on my way to somewhere else, and heard . . . nothing. Silence, sweet peace. My ears rang from the lack of noise. I ducked inside and found the tattooed patient’s female companion leaning over the addict. She was giving the young woman a backrub. The patient, now quiet, had finally relaxed, and so had her exhausted mother.

"Thank you!" I said, amazed and grateful, and the woman smiled up at me.

"I'm a masseuse,” she said. “Massage really does help people calm down."

The screaming patient accepted that backrub because the other woman was a peer, an equal: someone else dealing with real or perceived staff judgments, someone who wasn’t going to lecture or shame or judge an addict in withdrawal. In that place, at that moment, she – not the highly trained medical staff or the well-meaning volunteer – was the Good Shepherd. “They have to trust you, or it won’t work.”

While I’m certainly not encouraging anyone to become a murderer or an addict – or even the consort of a swastika-emblazoned biker – the Good Shepherd reminds us that Good News begins not with status and success, but with the cross and the tomb. We are called to remember that God creates new life and light from death and darkness, from our places of pain and failure. Like Jesus displaying his scars to Thomas, we are called to be wounded healers. We are called to honor the lowest moments of our lives, and to reach out in love to those who live there still.



  1. Thank you. I'm starting the unit on parables this week, and this is perfect. :-)

    But I can't find the link to the Times story and video ...

  2. The link's in the body of the post, Kristen. See where "New York Times story" is hyperlinked?

  3. susan, thank you for posting again.

    i have missed you powerfully.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.