Sunday, April 29

Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

4 Easter, Year C
April 29, 2007
Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17
Gospel: John 10: 22-30
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

First and foremost, today’s passage from John tells us who Jesus is. He is the Good Shepherd, who shows us the path of life, who is life, who lays down his life for us. He is united with God, one with God in work, in purpose. His loving and mutual relationship with God is on some level a model for how we are to be with God and one another. This passage also tells us some things about who the Church is, about who we are.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is asked, once again, just who he is. He’s addressed by some Jewish authorities at the Temple. It’s Channukah, also known as the Festival of Dedication. The Jewish authorities want Jesus to say publicly who he is, to “confess” that he is the Messiah. They ask him: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”

And Jesus says essentially: “I’ve already told you and shown you who I am, but you don’t believe me, because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice and they know me.”

“My sheep hear my voice and they know me.” This speaks to some essential truths about shepherd and sheep. Apparently, when you mix a group of sheep from different flocks together in a pen, and their respective shepherds call them, each sheep will respond only to the voice of its own shepherd. They know their own.

I think Jesus is talking about a very intimate, almost primal relationship we can have with him, a way of knowing that goes beyond our conscious minds. A kind of belonging to Him that may go back even before we were born. But then there’s also a conscious choice of faith each of us can make, we can choose to belong to Christ.

Our faith has many paradoxes, many puzzles. Jesus is both Great Shepherd and sacrificial lamb, as our passage from Revelation says. Jesus was both leader and servant. And so are we sheep and shepherds, servants and leaders. As members of the body of Christ, we’re all sheep, with Jesus as our Great Shepherd. And as members of the priesthood of all believers, we’re also shepherds, although not on the same order as Jesus. We are called to help guide others into and onward on the path of life.

John’s gospel holds up a vision of servant leadership. Jesus is the good shepherd because he guides his followers into right paths, and also because he lays down his life for his flock. As his disciples we may not be called to lay down our lives, but may be called to do some hard work and make difficult choices in our own lives, and as Church. We’re called to listen to Jesus’ voice as best we can, and serve and lead accordingly.

Many people in the larger Church – the Church as a whole -- are wondering today, how do we hear Jesus’s voice and follow him in the new paths to which we’re called? How do we, as followers of Christ, speak in our own authentic voices and lead authentically? What does it mean to be and do church? What should ordained ministry look like? And lay ministry? Where is the church heading?

The mainline churches –Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and others– are faced with shrinking numbers of their flocks. Church leaders and scholars are talking and writing about the changing church, the dying church, the church undergoing a new reformation. How we need to create new ways of being church.

And here we are, in this room, an ecumenical body, living out a new way of being church. All of us having heard Jesus’ voice in our lives, in some way, and followed him. We’re trying to stay true to Him and to ourselves, as we forge a new path. It can be challenging. Sometimes we, like people in Jesus’ time – may not know exactly who Jesus is. He’s a puzzle in many ways, this God made flesh, this one being with the Father, this paradoxical Shepherd and Paschal Lamb. And we may not always know how best to follow him. We may lose track of his voice from time to time, and hear other voices that call to us and distract us. It may be hard to separate his voice from other voices that tell us to play it safe, to be self-interested, important, powerful, cynical, materialistic, relevant, results-oriented. Faced with the amazing, confounding puzzle of who Jesus is, we grapple with how best to Serve him, in a changing world, in a changing church.

In the process, we need to have confidence that we’re God’s children. That whatever path we take in serving God, it’s going to be OK. We live in ambiguity, so we need grace. If we seek to hear Jesus’s voice and respond to it faithfully, we’re doing our best. If we make a mistake in so doing, it’s not the end of the world. There’s a difference between mistakes made out of carelesness vs. those we make when we’re trying to do our best. It’s a different thing to chip a few dishes when washing them than to break dishes because we were throwing them up the air and juggling them when we were supposed to be washing them.

If we’re following the Great Shepherd, it doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. Nor does it mean we have to be docile, dumb, or…well, sheeplike, in the negative sense. It turns out sheep are rather intelligent. Listening to Jesus’s voice doesn’t mean tuning out our individuality, will, or doubts. I think we have all that stuff for a reason. I don’t think God wants a bunch of spineless clones following him in a robotic fashion. Sheep are different from cattle, sheep need to be led rather than driven. We can increasingly discern and follow the voice of the one who calls us, who has always loved us, who continues to love us into being. Who seeks to lead us into right pathways, and guide us to the water of life, not dominate us and break our wills.

You see, we aren’t just followers. We’re also leaders. Jesus’s voice can be heard – not just externally – but also within us. Sometimes it’s the still small voice within. We take Jesus into us, when we accept Him in faith, when we take Communion. We take Jesus into ourselves. And so his voice becomes a part of us, as conscience perhaps or deep consciousness. How do you best listen to it? What helps you get in touch with it? For many of us prayer, meditation, Scripture, music, art, are a few of many ways to get in touch with the voice of Jesus.

And also through community. In the wisdom of loving friends, fellow Christians, and trusted guides. In our common worship life. Through the gift of community, when people are allowed to listen and speak for themselves, we can increasingly hear the Shepherd’s voice, and speak authentically out of our own voices.

God knows us. Jesus knows us. Psalm 139 says God has known us from when we were in the womb. Jesus says he knows his sheep. And all of us in this room know something of Jesus. How and when has Jesus spoken to you? How has he led you into green pastures and restored your soul, even though you may have walked the darkest valley, even thought you may have walked the valley of death? How does he speak through you in authentic ways and help you lead others into the path of life? What are you learning about his voice and your voice?

I’m all ears…