It was in October of 1986 when I met Claude Bates. As nice a person as you would ever want to meet. A simple and unassuming man. Claude hailed from Waycross, Georgia and was a very proud 69 years old. As a young boy growing up in Waycross he learned the railroad trade and when he answered the call to serve his country in World War Two the Army sent him to Cheyenne, Wyoming to teach the Army all they needed to know about railroading. While there he met Lois, who was from Nebraska, and she too would soon hail from Waycross. After his tour of duty, he and Lois moved to Waycross where he and his brother took up a successful honey bee business. They had at least two sons that I know of, Claude Jr. and Bill. He had a couple of grandbabies with one on the way. After thousands of bee stings he finally retired and he and Lois were taking that long-awaited vacation. They were headed to the Grand Canyon in their immaculate 3 year-old Pontiac Parisienne with only 16,000 miles on it and had stopped in Houston to rest.
I was at St. Joseph’s Hospital checking on one of my officers who had injured his hand in a scuffle with a reluctant drunk. It was about 5 o’clock in the morning when Claude first approached me. With a look of pain and fear in his eyes he asked apologetically if there was anybody in the City of Houston who might help him out. No was not an option, so without knowing what his problem was I said I’d try. I quickly learned that after arriving in Houston and having lunch Lois started to feel bad. Pepto Bismol didn’t seem to help and when she began to feel worse Claude called an ambulance and she was transported to St. Joseph’s. She had no history of heart problems but it appeared that she may have had a heart attack. Claude had called the boys to tell them about their mother and to assure them there was nothing to worry about. Regardless, they were on their way. Claude then got a call from the hospital informing him that Lois had taken a turn for the worse and to return to the hospital as quickly as he could. He checked out of the hotel and headed back to the hospital only to get lost. By the time he got to the hospital his wife of over 40 years had passed away. She died alone in a strange city in a strange hospital. Now Claude was alone in a strange city where he knew no one.
I couldn’t do anything for him other than to make sure he wasn’t alone so we sat and talked. For extended periods of time we just sat. I called the Crisis Intervention Unit and Helen Jenkins took over. While waiting for a ride to the airport another sergeant bought him a cup of coffee and chatted with him. A male nurse helped Claude make several long-distance phone calls to Georgia. After doing all I could he thanked me with a silent and firm handshake.
The Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5: 2-4, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
In our Gospel reading for today Jesus is explaining to his disciples their obligation to be good shepherds of his flock. He uses the example of herding sheep which was very familiar to many of them. Sheep were pretty defenseless and depended upon the shepherd for everything including their safety. The sheep knew the voice of their shepherd and would follow him anywhere knowing that he was their protector and provider. In the evening the shepherd would lead the sheep through a narrow gate into an enclosure. Jesus tells them that he is the gate of the sheep and that whoever enters the gate through him will be saved. They will find pasture. The ones that came before him were thieves and outlaws whose only interest was to take advantage of the sheep. He was saying this for the benefit of the Pharisees who had been monitoring his every move. As far as he was concerned, they were the thieves and outlaws. Jesus said, “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he has entrusted his flock to us. We are his under-shepherds. When we changed through Jesus’ death on the cross the world remained the same waiting for us to do something. We became part of the flock with Jesus to guide us. This is our identity and how people should identify us. At times, we have an under-shepherd to guide and protect us. Other times, we are the under-shepherd who must pay attention and listen for the promptings of the spirit, and then act to bless, care for, and stand up for others.
Whenever, we as sheep of the flock, are faced with a crisis that immobilizes us or paralyzes us with fear we pray for a miracle. I have no doubt that when Claude’s wife of over 40 years became suddenly ill in an unfamiliar city, away from friends and family, away from her doctors and the hospital they used, he prayed. And when he got a call from the hospital to hurry back because Lois had taken a turn for the worse, I am convinced he prayed for a miracle, for God to deliver Lois back to him.
Miracles are miracles because they are rare. God’s primary way of working in our world is to influence us and others—giving us peace and strength, wisdom and patience—while using the natural means God created to accomplish His purposes. Most often God works through people, calling us and nudging us into action, working in our hearts and lives to be the instruments God uses to answer the prayers of others. God intends us to be the answer to one another’s prayers. God sends us. We are a Godsend. God’s answer to our prayers is often not to deliver us or others from the suffering, but to walk with us or them through it, and then to transform it and us it to change our lives, their lives or the world. Often, he sends us to walk with the suffering or he sends someone to walk with us or to just sit and listen.
As members of the flock of Jesus Christ, the church, we watch over one another in Christian love. We keep our eyes open for injuries or troubles faced by our sisters and brothers, so that, if needed, we may attend to their needs and offer assistance. The Holy Spirit leads us forward, sometimes directing us to go into difficult situations and dangerous pastures, to reach out in love and justice to all God’s people, and to welcome all God’s children into the loving protection of the sheepfold.
Our Good Shepherd sees what we cannot see for ourselves; he knows not just the names of those who are already part of the flock, but the names of those who have yet to join the flock.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and merciful God, how thankful we are for the gift of your son the Good Shepherd. Without him we would be as lost and as helpless as sheep without a shepherd to defend us against the dangers of the world. As your children, secured in your love through the sacrifice of your son, we embrace our responsibility to also be under-shepherds of your flock and share in the joy of tending your flock. Use us to be blessings to others who need to be blessed and send us where we need to go so we can help and comfort those who need relief and aid in your name. As we care for your flock keep us vigilant for those strays that need to be brought in through the gate to you. In the name of your most precious son Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.