Sermons

Hear My Voice

(A sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday — May 3, 2009 — Psalm 23; John 10:11-18)

When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, I remember using a big black telephone, with a dial so heavy it was hard for little fingers to bring the higher numbers full circle. Since most of our friends had numbers starting with 393, every call became an adventure. I remember the idea that long distance calls had to be hurried and could be made only in dire emergencies. But we live in a different time. We carry phones in our pockets or strapped to our belts. We sign up for phone plans that include all the long distance calls we can make! I’m grateful for it, because my family is scattered across the country now, my husband in Washington, my sons in Michigan and New York, and all my daughter and I have of them right now is the sound of their voices on the telephone.

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."

It’s a verse from a little later in this tenth chapter of John, a chapter we divide in three parts to cover all three Good Shepherd Sundays in our lectionary cycle. But Jesus says it in each part, in some way. I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep are the people who listen to me. My sheep are the people who hear my voice. I know my own and my own know me.

He weaves an image that we find powerful enough to come back to it over and over again. We find something comforting in the image of a shepherd who loves us as his own, who isn’t a hired hand but a loving protector. He paints a picture that makes the sheep pen and the fields vivid, the vision of other flocks that the people he spoke to could not see, the promise that those who hear his voice will belong to him.

Meanwhile, he’s irritating the Pharisees, who are trailing around Jerusalem hoping Jesus will say something they can use to arrest him. They invite him to announce himself as the Messiah. They cannot leave him alone.

And instead they hear about sheep and a shepherd.

At the end of the chapter, Jesus will deem it wise to move on across the Jordan, to avoid arrest. It’s coming, but it’s not quite time yet.

John’s Jesus makes it clear that he knows what he is doing, that he intends to lay down his life for his sheep, for his people, for the flocks both known and unknown. No one will take it from him, and he wants the Pharisees to be clear about it.

He will lay down his life for the people who hear his voice.

We like the Shepherd God, don’t we? Shepherds seem homely and real to us, even if we’ve never met one or seen one other than in a bathrobe costume for a Christmas pageant. We know those words of the 23rd Psalm, at least we know them if we’re a certain age, and they spell comfort and care to us. I wonder how often we remember that being a shepherd is a dirty, cold and lonely job?

I can understand why a shepherd likes to work with a dog.

Our Sam is 6 years old, 110 pounds of Bernese Mountain Dog, and a very loyal companion. Unlike our first Berner, he paid attention in obedience class, and he responds reliably to voice commands. But sometimes he’s not sure whose commands count.

You see, my very tall husband has a very deep voice, and since he did most of the training with Sam, Sam came to think he needed to be in charge when Don went away for work. My voice did not sound authoritative to him. He thought he could decide where we would walk in the neighborhood, refusing to go beyond certain corners or onto certain blocks. He started grooming me! And being in charge made him nervous. And being nervous caused him to eat textiles.

He needed someone to be his shepherd, but the voice he knew was far away. He needed someone to be his shepherd, but he did not know I could be that person.
So I had to teach him. A trainer suggested one simple thing. Don’t let him go through the open door until you tell him to go. We practiced this over and over again, and eventually, he got the message. Now he follows me nose to elbow when we go into a new situation; he listens for my voice.

He relies on me for the things we associate with the 23rd Psalm: for nourishing food, clean water, a ride in the car and a romp in the park, protection from those who might hurt him, care when he is sick and kindness when life must come to an end.

There’s a publication out, it’s been around since the avian flu predictions several years ago, that tells you everything you would need to know to take care of a person with the flu. The author tells us to expect not to be able to go to the store or to work, to visualize hospitals so full of patients and short of staff that you wouldn’t want to be in one anyway. He makes a list of the things any family would need to cope with serious illness when professional medical care isn’t readily accessible and gives instructions about keeping the ill person hydrated, the most important thing of all for a flu patient. Most importantly, he tells the caregiver,

“Caring for severely ill flu patients is something that everyone is capable of doing. You can do this. No medical skill is required. . .they need to be comforted and told that they are going to be OK and reassured that you will be there for them.”

The most important thing we could give is care. The thing they would most need is our love. And it’s a kind of care anyone can give.

This is the care a shepherd provides, and it is the care God gives to us. A shepherd accompanies the flock on every step of the journey. Wherever we are, whatever we may be facing, God is with us.

But except on rare occasions, except for saints and poets, maybe, we don’t get to hear the Shepherd’s voice. We can’t get him on his cell phone. It’s not only the shepherd we experience as a metaphor. It’s the hearing of his voice, too. And I think the gospels make it fairly clear that even among those who met him in person, even among those who knew him well, there were people who did not “hear” him, who did not “get” who he was. Hearing the actual voice of the man Jesus did not guarantee belief; isn’t that almost unimaginable? There were people who met him and still did not understand the kind of God-love Jesus embodied, the fullness and the deepness and the wideness of it.

And that’s just the voice we need to train ourselves to hear: the voice of Love.

It’s hard to hear that voice in a world on edge about flu and the economy and war and assorted other disasters. It’s easier to curl up tight, to stick our fingers in our ears, to figure out what will keep us safe without thinking of others anymore than we can possibly help it.

But that’s not the Shepherd. And that’s not Jesus. He cares for all his sheep.

Knowing that there may be others, knowing that we are not all there is, how can we turn inward and still claim to hear his voice?

And so we schedule reminders, just like the alerts on our small electronic devices that tell us it’s time to go to the Council meeting or to take our children to the orthodontist. We schedule reminders of Jesus and gather to worship God and spend an hour, give or take, focused on the Shepherd who is always attentive to us. We try to listen and sometimes the music speaks to us, or we feel love in the embrace of a friend, or we hear a word that brings us one step further on the right path.

We hear the voice of Jesus in the stories of his life. We remember his courage and his love and his willingness to live through what human authorities doled out in order to show us there is victory over death, and reconciliation where there has been brokenness and forgiveness born of a great and eternal Love. When we believe these things, when we know them in our hearts, we hear his voice. Amen.

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