May 15, 2011
The message of Easter that we have heard on recent Sundays has been a message about our sight:
This morning the Easter message addresses our hearing.
Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd—a voice that you know.
In urban churches surrounded by concrete, in rural churches neighbored by fields, stained glass windows show Jesus, shepherd’s staff in hand, leading sheep through green pastures. On the walls of church school classrooms we see pictures of a smiling Jesus, carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says.
When life is confusing and we don’t know which way to turn, when life hurts and we are filled with grief, when we face the mystery of death, the words start to form on our lips even without thinking: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The image of God as a shepherd is ancient, yet it still speaks powerfully to our modern hearts, wandering and lost, looking for a home in the universe. Even in our technological age, we want to believe Jesus when he says, “I am the good shepherd.”
In the past twenty years or so, this fourth Sunday of Easter has been observed in many places as “Good Shepherd Sunday”—a day to hear scripture lessons like those from Ezekiel and John, maybe to sing and hear music based on the 23rd Psalm, with its familiar words of comfort: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The Congregationalist in the United Church of Christ doesn’t put a lot of stock in such special days—recognizing instead that each Sunday is a little Easter, a weekly celebration of resurrection. Still—let’s be honest—we could use some comfort. And sometimes we could use a shepherd.
Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd.”
No doubt someone here can tell me where the nearest flock of sheep is around here. But most of us know little of what it means for a shepherd to tend the sheep. We need reminders of what this is all about.
Of course, the encroachment of modernity make such an understanding ever more elusive.
So I’m grateful for the account of William Miller, a Presbyterian minister working in Iran over fifty years ago. Stranded in a remote village for a day, he set out to explore the village and came to a mound of earth piled up in a large circle—and on the top of the mound all around that circle was a heap of dry thorns.
He asked a villager about the enclosure.
“Oh—that’s for the sheep,” came the reply. “They are brought in here at night for safety.”
And the thorns?
“The dry thorns on top,” he was told, “serve as a protection against wolves. If a wolf tries to break in and attack the sheep it will knock against the thorns and they will make a noise and the shepherd will wake up and drive off the wolf.”
“That’s fine,” Miller said. “But why does the wolf try to climb over the wall? Here is the entrance to the enclosure. It is open. There is no gate to keep out the wolf. It could easily enter here.”
“Oh no,” said the villager. “You don’t understand. That is where the shepherd sleeps. The shepherd is the gate.”[i]
Jesus says, “I am the good Shepherd.”
And Jesus also says, “I am the Gate.”
Actually, it is because he is the Shepherd that Jesus is also the Gate—both calling and protecting the sheep of his flock.
And this understanding can help us understand the life of faith.
We, the sheep, hear the voice of the shepherd.
It is a familiar voice. Maybe you heard it long ago but today it seems silent. Still it is a voice that is not forgotten.
We need to listen for that voice again each day if our faith is to be alive. This is the living voice of the risen Christ—not dusty words from long ago.
But where shall we listen? How shall we hear?
Listening requires your full attention. Do you know what it’s like to talk to someone who isn’t really listening? That person’s mind and energy seem to be someplace else. Maybe you’ve listened to other people in that way yourself at times.
And many will say: “God doesn’t seem real. The universe seems silent.”
Still we affirm that the voice of the shepherd speaks through scripture—in stories and psalms, through prophets and teachers who can detect that familiar voice. “Listen for the Word of God” we are told when we worship together. We listen, not to escape from this world, but so that we might better live in it.
The voice of the Good Shepherd is heard in other places as well.
What in life brings you great joy?
What makes you feel most alive?
Those might be just the places to listen for the voice that says: “For this you were created; to this you are called.”
The cries of the city and the quiet of our town are all places to listen. And when we listen, when we focus our attention, we will hear the voice of the shepherd.
That voice calls each one of us by name.
Shepherding the flock day after day, being their gate by night, a shepherd knows the sheep—knows their marks and features. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon for shepherds to have names for the different members of the flock.
So it isn’t surprising that Jesus says: “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
Frederick Buechner writes: “When somebody knows my name, he has a hold over me that he didn’t have before. If he calls it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not.
Now, my own name is kind of strange. It seems like no one can believe that it’s really “Lovin.” So they call me “Mr. Lorin or Pastor Levin.” They ask for Reverend Loval or Bill Loving. I’ll answer to all sorts of names.
But the shepherd calls each one of us by name.
What is it like to hear your name called? To walk along a street in an unfamiliar city and hear: “Bill.” To be among friends or family members and hear: “Bill.”
What is it like to know that the one who calls you by name is also the one who gives you life, is the one who desires your life to be filled with abundance?
Somewhere I read: “If I have a true self, it is that self which is God’s project.”
Amazing. Each one of us is God’s own project. The creator works within the creature—bringing life, filling us with breath, with energy, with love.
God calls us by name. That is, God calls each of us as individuals with all our quirks and faults. God calls each of us by name and says: “It is in you that I want to work. It is through you that I want to work in the world.
You are not an anonymous member of the flock. You are known and loved by the one who calls you. You are called as an individual to live and love in a world of individuals.
Listen. The shepherd calls you by name.
The shepherd calls us to security and freedom.
Enter by the gate, Jesus says, and you will be saved.
For many people the way to a productive and satisfying life seems blocked. The route they take might look good—hard work, self-sacrifice. Or the route might seem more like paths of self-indulgence. But all the roads to a good life seem strewn with insurmountable obstacles.
There is a way to the wholeness of life that you seek. “The gate is open,” Jesus says. Desiring our life to be abundant, God opens a new way. Walk it and you will find yourself where you’ve always wanted to be.
Within that wholeness is the security to try and to fail, the security to love even when that seems foolish.
And the wholeness that we find brings freedom. For many the church has become a sealed up, dark and musty place. It’s antique sounds and smells remind people of the past instead of ushering them into the future.
But Jesus gives us a new image for the church. People will come in and go out and find pasture. This is a church of fresh air and daylight.
We hear of coming in—a gathering of free individuals.
That’s what makes church life so hard in a way—none of us are alike. We each have a name. We are each a person unique before God.
Of course all of this is really a blessing. Can you imagine what life would be like if everyone were like me? Or if everyone were like you? Neither option is really very appealing.
No. This congregation is a place where each person can belong. This is a place where you can find a community—not of like minds but of diverse individuals trying to live faithfully before God and with each other.
We come in as individuals and become a community.
We go out as well.
The life of faith is an adventure. This congregation doesn’t exist within four walls. Our call, our mission always moves us beyond ourselves as we are. The workplace, home, school, among neighbors and friends—in such places each of us will live out our commitments as Christians.
And we are fed—spiritually at the table where bread is broken and wine is poured. We are nurtured by each other.
The shepherd calls us to security and freedom.
What’s it finally all about?
Life. Abundant life.
Strange, isn’t it. In spite of all our life denying ways, we still follow after Jesus who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Abundance is a difficult word for many people. It suggests an overflowing—more than enough. My dictionary says that while “plentiful” implies a great or rich supply, “abundant” suggests an even greater or richer supply.
Life to spare. Life to give. That seems to be what Jesus is about. Giving us life that overflows into eternity so that in these days we can live fully and love our neighbor as ourselves.
There is much that works to take away that life. “The thief,” Jesus says, “Comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” You know that the powers of death and destruction are very real. Often they seem more real than the voice that calls faintly, inviting you back into life.
Listen. It is the voice of the One who has known suffering and death. It is the voice of the One who in dying has overcome death and invited us to live in the face of all that threatens to cut us down.
That voice keeps calling—hoping to be heard.
That voice—the voice of the good shepherd—keeps calling each one of us by name.
[i] Eric Bishop, Expository Times, quoted in Easter Sourcebook, pg. 81.