When I was a child, I attended a church school for the first few years. The nuns who taught there were filled with grace and taught us much about what it means to live as a minister of Jesus in the world. They also showed us what it’s like to be loved, and to be at play in the fields of the Lord, like those sheep who lie down in green pastures, or frolic on the hillside. On feast days we went to school and played, watched movies, made funny hats, and rejoiced. The rest of the time we studied hard, and were given grades in deportment and penmanship as well as mathematics and French.
During Lent each student was given a small white plaster lamb with her name on it, and all the lambs were placed at the foot of a statue of Mary, with seven steps or levels leading to the top. Each week of Lent we watched as some of the lambs moved closer to Mary, and some stayed where they were. Their movement depended on how well the students had done in their studies during that week, and the nuns’ evaluation of your behavior. In spite of the inevitable comparisons the custom invited, there was something comforting about being one of the sheep, and knowing that others were loving and looking after us, whether we’d done well or not during the past week.
The saints we’re celebrating today were shepherds of rather different flocks. Peter had charge of the Jewish flock, based in Jerusalem, while Paul went looking for Gentile sheep all over the Mediterranean world. The Bible records some of their significant disagreements over how to lead, and those disagreements were based on the kinds of human sheep they were responsible for. They needed different approaches to tending those flocks, and they gathered teams of leaders to help feed, house, and teach the sheep in their care.
Shepherds in Jesus’ service have a message about the good news of the kingdom of God, and it’s only effective if it can be heard and understood. It doesn’t make sense to feed steak to babies who can’t yet chew or digest solid food yet. It may be very important to feed it to their mothers! Jesus, the good shepherd, responded to what the people he met told him they needed. He didn’t set out banquets for people who were blind, or try to remove spirits from people who were hungry. If people didn’t name their need immediately, he asked what they wanted, or struck up a conversation. He did encourage others in the community to feed the people who had been healed, as a sign that they had been restored to their place in the flock, and to their role as a member of the community.
This school is the result of hearing the needs of the community and responding as a shepherd would. It has involved a lot of shepherds: the one who gave the land – and then gave a bigger piece of land, those who designed this school, those who helped to build and supply the building, and supervise its construction, and those who have painted these murals. This school has been prepared to receive many lambs, to feed and nurture them in body, mind, and spirit. It will need the continuing shepherding of teachers and cooks and overseers who will help keep it healthy and moving toward good pasture.
If this school becomes the home or shelter for which it is named, it will reach out to the wider community to feed and tend the lambs and sheep who live around here, including some who will never enter this place. That shepherding begins with the first students who come here. If they are formed to care for others, to become shepherds themselves, the wider community will be blessed as a result. It may be something as simple as learning to share a book, or how to mediate playground arguments, and it may be as profound as learning to trust other people and live with a deep source of hope. These little shepherds can learn justice here, and how to help others create justice, but only if good shepherds help to teach them. The older shepherds have to be sheep as well, knowing that they are members of the same flock.
This school can become a source of shepherds for people farther away as well, as those little shepherds leave this school and begin to move out into the world. What will these children do as they grow? We don’t know yet, but we have abundant hope for all the varied kinds of shepherds they will become. We can share in forming them as sheep and shepherds of a flock that reaches around the world – for there are lost and hungry sheep everywhere.
Peter and Paul resolved their differences – or more correctly, learned to manage them – when they responded to people in their particular kind of pain. When the community in Jerusalem was hungry, they helped collect funds from the more distant Christian communities and then sent it to help buy food. And the community in Jerusalem became a fount of hospitality for pilgrims who came to remember the sacred story.
Something similar has happened here in the building and equipping of this school. The needs and concerns of others have prompted people in both places to listen to the cries of sheep far away. And as the sheep have moved their attention beyond their own little flock, they are becoming shepherds of the wider world. Jesus was pretty clear that he had sheep of other flocks than the ones in his immediate neighborhood – and that mural is a wonderful image of that reality.
Ezekiel sets out a beautiful and powerful vision of the shepherd as one who seeks out the lost and heals the wounded and sick. He’s also clear that the great good shepherd is looking for something more than simply quiet in the flock. He says that God “will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” The fat and the strong aren’t simply healthy sheep – they are the ones who have begun to “lord it over” their weaker brothers and sisters. In some sense they need a diet of drought and famine. Relationships of justice need to be restored, so that there is grazing and water for all.
This nation and this church have a pretty good understanding of what justice looks like. Teach these children about justice and teach them well. Show them love and justice and they will do it.
 There are different translations of this passage. Some read in the way I have cited here. In others, it says, “and I will guard (or watch over, or care for) the fat and strong. I will feed them appropriately.” The shepherd will guard the strong so they can’t hurt the weaker sheep, and will feed them what they most need. The contrast is stronger in Spanish translations.