His Master’s Voice

A sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)     May 15, 2011         Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

I don’t know whose voice he’s listening for. We walk around the neighborhood or down by the beach or in the park, or even just once around the parking lot here at church, and sometimes he’s with me, walking right along, and sometimes, he just isn’t with me at all.

And I wonder what voice he is hoping to hear, this 8-year-old dog who has only lived at my house for three months, yesterday. I wonder what voice calls to him in his doggy dreams, or what glimmer of recognition causes him to want to pull me right out into and across the busy street at the end of our quiet block. I wonder which voice would sound like the right voice to him.

My other dogs had an array of people to learn when they were puppies, and I had my work cut out for me in convincing them that they could and would take my soft voice seriously. But they learned, and Hoagie will learn, too. I believe it.

We’re still learning what he’s like. At first I thought he got along with everyone, and then I gradually came to find he will back away from people who put their hands out toward his face too quickly. It doesn’t matter if they are tall or short, male or female, he does not like the quickly-extended hand. And as I try to learn him, I hate to think about the voice that went along with the frightening, perhaps punishing, hand. Because Hoagie is a dog, first of all, essentially trusting and mostly helpless, and more than that, he is a sweet, gentle dog. And the thought that anyone might have used force to intimidate him is horrifying to me.

But when I see him back away, I have to wonder. He has backed away from me, and I am very gentle.

Except, that is, when he really pulls to get to the place where the neighbor’s garbage bag broke open or to get into the pile of compost from our sale yesterday, or when he stops hard when we really need to finish our walk and get home. Then I have to assert some authority, some pull-back on the leash, because that’s the closest I can get to a rod or a staff to “comfort” my tri-colored lamb.

Of course, if he were an actual lamb, and I were a shepherd, I would probably know better. It’s my understanding that sheep have to be herded more than led, protected by the rod and the staff of the shepherd, and by the trusty sheep dog, too. And that’s the premise of the movie “Babe,” in which a bright young pig whose foster mother is a Border Collie proves to be an able herder of sheep, not by virtue of intimidation as he is taught, but by the use of kind words.

Fly and her husband, Rex, try to teach him the right way to handle sheep, but on first attempt, the sheep simply laugh at him.

Babe: This is ridiculous, Mom!
Fly: Nonsense, it’s only your first try. But you’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior.
Babe: Oh, no they’re not.
Fly: Of course they are. We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Fly! Get the pig out of there!
Fly: Make them feel inferior – abuse them, insult them.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Fly!
Babe: They’ll laugh at me.
Fly: Then bite them! Be ruthless. Whatever it takes, bend them to your will.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Enough!
Fly: Go on, go!

Later, Babe tries it his way. In the quote on our bulletin cover, he reports back to his “mother,” Fly.

Fly: All right, how did you do it?
Babe: I asked them and they did it. I just asked them nicely.
Fly: We don’t ask sheep, dear; we tell them what to do.
Babe: But I did, Mom. They were really friendly.

His sheep know his voice.
Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:2-6, NRSV)

You have to love that. They did not understand what he was saying to them.

Every year on Good Shepherd Sunday, we get a piece of John 10, with its extended metaphor about Jesus as shepherd. It has more images than we can handle, really, just as it had more images than the disciples could understand. Jesus is a gate, Jesus is a shepherd, there are thieves and bandits—and more, when we go on beyond verse 10. If we have to go back and re-read the verses to try and get a sense of Jesus’ meaning, we are not alone. At least we have the text and don’t have to ask Jesus to repeat himself.

But most of us are far away from what it means to be a shepherd. And if you’re closer to it than I am, please forgive all I am about to say, if need be. I’m a city girl, you all know that, and my total experience with actual sheep is this:

1)      I used to live in Williamsburg, and went to college there, and they have a lot of sheep that move around the Restored Area, and going to find the sheep was a classic babysitting move when I sat for kids who lived there.
2)      I’ve been to festivals and fairs and looked at sheep in pens.
3)      That’s all I’ve got, except that I love their wool, because I’m a knitter.

So I have to go and look around for the shepherd experience in books. And from that I know that shepherds were poorly regarded in the first century. No wonder the disciples didn’t understand. Their teacher, their Lord, was not a shepherd! Jesus compares himself to ragged, lower class guys who had to fend for themselves in the wild while caring for creatures too clueless to notice or pay much attention.]’\ “Thy rod and thy staff” comforted by keeping the predators away and preventing the sheep from falling into trouble. Real sheep don’t follow the shepherd; they require controlling.

Fly is not far off in what she tells Babe.
But Jesus tells a different story. He describes sheep that follow because they know his voice. His voice will be enough to guide his sheep.
I keep hoping that will be the way it happens with Hoagie, that gradually my voice will become his master’s voice, so familiar and so trusted that he won’t doubt or struggle or rebel by refusing to move. I hope he will decide to follow me, because I’m so kind to him, as Babe is to the sheep, so kind that he has no reason not to follow.
But I know what it’s like to be the sheep, wandering away distracted by something shiny, or nothing in particular, paying the shepherd no mind. I know what it’s like.
You?
It happens to the best of us. Also the worst. Because Jesus has told us the sort of shepherd he will be. He’s not rounding us up. He’s leading us out. He’s not intimidating a flock of inferior creatures. He is guiding us with his kind and loving voice. The ideas are all there for us, but most of the time, just like that first flock of disciples, we do not understand what he is saying.
Maybe, though, we remember something else, something we’ve repeated over the years, or heard others read to us, those other words about the shepherd who cares for us. Maybe we’ve heard it so many times we’ve stopped listening to it. Maybe we’re annoyed when we hear it read from the New Revised Standard Version. After all, if the King James Version, which just turned 400 years old, was good enough for Jesus… 

I’m not annoyed, but I have to admit, I translate it to the way I know it better, full of thou and maketh and my cup runneth over, words that sound hilariously old-fashioned at the same time they have the tones of the voice we can trust.
This week I needed to pray. Well, okay, I always need to pray, but on a particular day, at a certain time, I needed to pray and even though I usually have no trouble finding the words I want to say to God, that moment I did not have the words. I fumbled around in my mind, looking for something that would help. I looked at my bookshelves, but I didn’t even open a book, because I realized that what I wanted was right in front of me.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
I shall not want.
I don’t need to look it up. I remember the way it feels to say it. I may add an extra “eth” along the way, but I know where I’m headed, from the green pastures to the still waters to the table prepared before my enemies. That’s where I ended up, in that moment, my head anointed with oil, my cup running over.
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy, surely God’s loving-kindness, will follow me all the days of my life, yes?
Now we might be confused, again, like the disciples, for the shepherd we are following is also the shepherd whose love and goodness follow us. But I’m grateful for the circular movement of those two ideas, because it calls us to respond while at the same time reassuring us that when we don’t or can’t follow just right, we haven’t fallen outside the attention of our loving God.
If that’s too complicated, remember this. I love Hoagie, even if he can’t always remember that my girlish tones are now his master’s voice. Babe did not shame the sheep into following, but spoke to them kindly. I believe our Good Shepherd loves us in just those ways: fondly, protectively, hoping to keep us out of the compost piles of life, sometimes disappointed in the choices we make, but always ready to comfort and care.

May we follow the Shepherd who loves us so much. Amen.

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8 thoughts on “His Master’s Voice

  1. A deep a-ha moment for me when I was reading your sermon was: "He’s not rounding us up. He’s leading us out." The voice way vs. the rod and the staff way is powerful. And I appreciate the reminder of a wonderful message in the movie "Babe" which I haven't seen in way too long.Thanks, Martha!

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  2. And I spent an afternoon at the NH Sheep and Wool Festival today! I spent some time watching shepherds herd sheep, and listening to a barn full of sheep baa-ing. It made me giggle — we are such silly sheep sometimes!!

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  3. How we can be sure you are a poet, if there were a doubt: you take the quotidian and make it sing and soar. Everywhere I read today I hear the same thing: Listen. Although I will not be in a church this morning, my preacher friends instruct me. I thank you.

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