The Shepherd’s Voice (Easter 4)
Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18
April 22nd, 2018
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL 36104
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In our opening collect this morning we prayed that when we hear the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd who calls us each by name, that we would know him and follow where he leads. In the Gospel lesson we just heard that Jesus will bring sheep from other folds who listen to his voice. So why is the voice of the shepherd so important for sheep? First, it is by his voice that they sheep know they will be safe and cared for. But more to the point, without the shepherd the sheep will die.
A shepherd uses his voice in many ways. He can use it to announce his presence, which allays the fears of the sheep and calms them. As a matter of fact, sheep won’t lie down unless they are calm. The shepherd also uses his voice to call the sheep to himself for examination. As he examines the sheep with his rod, lifting up the wool and examining their skin for diseases and injuries, he talks to the sheep. He addresses them by name. If the shepherd detects a rash or injury on the sheep, he will apply some oil or balm on the sheep’s skin to help it heal. The shepherd also uses his voice to announce that fresh feed has just been supplied, or that salt or minerals or water is available. The shepherd will use his voice to call them to fresh pastures or into a shelter from approaching storms. When the sheep hear the shepherds voice, they associate it with that of assurance and benefit. With his voice and actions the shepherd demonstrates to the sheep that he cares for them and everything he does is for their own interest.
God, I think, was exceptionally clever in arranging the order of the universe such that the voice of the shepherd is so important for the well-being of the sheep. Without a shepherd, sheep won’t survive very long because sheep have no significant defense mechanisms. God didn’t give sheep a poisonous bite or sting, camouflage, exceptional speed, or a hard shell into which to retreat. Sheep can do two things to defend themselves. First, they can run, albeit not very fast. Their top speed is about 15 mph, but that can’t be sustained for more than a few hundred yards.
Their second defense mechanism is to flock together. This is a helpful defense mechanism for the sheep because it is harder for predators to pick a sheep out of the group rather than to go after a single defenseless stray. This flocking instinct also reveals the extremely social nature of sheep. Sheep typically won’t eat unless they have visual contact with other sheep. Also, having contact with other sheep calms them and lowers their stress level. Sheep become highly agitated when separated from the rest of the flock.
So sheep are not only absolutely dependent on the shepherd, but also highly dependent on the other sheep as well. Indeed, newborn lambs do not have the ability to recognize the voice of the shepherd immediately, but it is protected because it is born with the instinct to flock to its mother and other sheep.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the sheep and shepherd metaphor is used so frequently throughout the Bible to explain the nature of the relationship between God and his people. We are absolutely dependent on the Good Shepherd to provide us with everything we need and to lead us along the right path throughout our life. It is by his voice that we know the good shepherd is with us.
But what do we do when we can’t hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? What do we do when we are living in a state of spiritual deafness and we cannot hear God’s voice in Scripture or speaking to us through the beauty of creation around us? What do we do when we are walking through the “valley of the shadow of death,” that place of spiritual darkness where we feel broken, alone, and feeling isolated from God and everyone else?
As God’s sheep, we have two options: First, we can run. But if we run we can’t run very fast or very far. But even if we do run, the question is to where shall we run? Sheep out on their own die. We can’t expect to outrun the spiritual equivalent of a wolf and live to tell about it.
Our second, and more promising option, when we can’t hear the shepherd’s voice, is to flock with the rest of the sheep. If we see that our fellow sheep are following the shepherd, eating, or resting then we know that the shepherd is in control of the flock. Our best bet is to sidle up to our fellow sheep and walk next to them for a while, until our spiritual deafness leaves us and we can once again hear the shepherd’s voice.
Difficulty, it is probably something that our fellow sheep have done that may have contributed to our difficulties in the first place, so staying with the flock may not be an attractive option or we think that it will make our problems worse. This may even be a common reason why people leave a church or lose their faith in God. However, it is important for us to remember that God’s flock of sheep is pretty large. We have to have confidence that there is a place for us in it somewhere. The shepherd will make sure that we have a place in the flock and are cared for. He’ll even protect us from our fellow sheep as necessary. And, when the time is right, the shepherd will help heal the broken relationships that with may have with our fellow sheep.
So while I know that sometimes it is from our fellow sheep that we want to run, it is also to our fellow sheep that we can turn when we can’t hear the shepherd’s voice. I’d like to close my sermon out this morning by telling you a story about when I turned to some fellow some sheep when I was in a place in my life when I couldn’t hear the shepherd’s voice.
By now some of you know that I have recently come to St. John’s after having left the church and the priesthood for 7 years. I was definitely a stray sheep wandering alone in the wilderness. The spiritual darkness and the spiritual deafness that I experienced during that time is difficult to describe. But about 9 months ago, I found myself desperate to hear the Shepherd’s voice. At the time, it was hard for me to read the Bible and it was hard for me to go back to an Episcopal church. But then my flocking instinct started to kick in and I turned to some fellow sheep for help. And, this is how that unfolded.
Just after my arrival in Montgomery in 2015, the Dean of the school where I work had invited me over to his house for Easter dinner. The Dean was doing then what all good leaders do, he was making sure that all his people had a place to go during a holiday. And since I was a single person and new to town he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t spending it alone if I didn’t want to. The dean is a life-long Baptist and his wife is Roman Catholic. I had not gone to Easter services that morning and was still alienated from God and the church at the time, but I enjoyed spending that Easter with the dean and his family.
Fast forward 18 months later in September of 2017, where I found myself more ready to face up to the reality of my spiritual crisis and wanting to be in the company of fellow Christians. I didn’t know what exactly to do or where to turn since I had no church home in Montgomery, but remembering the previous Easter invitation, I decided, mustering up all the courage I could find, to ask the Dean if I could go to church with him and his wife that Sunday.
This very unusual request, I think, caught him a bit by surprise. (This wasn’t the normal sort of question the dean was used to hearing me ask when I came into his office on other occasions!) He seemed to take a moment to process what I had just asked, but he recovered almost immediately and said, “Absolutely.” So, I went with him and his wife to their Baptist church that Sunday. They didn’t pepper me with a lot of questions and were respectful of the delicate spiritual space I was in at the time.
Going to church with them that Sunday was very comforting, mostly because I was with two people who I knew cared about me simply as a person. Whatever theological or ecclesiastical disagreements that existed more formally between us didn’t matter. Hearing the Word of God preached that day and worshipping with other Christians was exactly what I needed at the time. I felt very welcome by the pastor and other members of the congregation.
Significantly, too, it was watching the pastor of that church going about his Sunday activities, leading worship, preaching, welcoming newcomers, and shaking hands of people going out the door, that captured my attention. As I watched the pastor, I remember thinking, “Wow. I used to do that. That used to be me.” And, as I watched the pastor, I felt past memories of what seemed like another life coming to the surface again.
Three weeks after going to church with the dean and his wife, I was ready to face the Episcopal church again and I came to St. John’s and talked with Robert for the first time.
(And, if I may, I would also like to say that, the dean and his wife are here in the congregation with us this morning. It’s a bit remarkable, really, because I had already written my sermon before I knew they were coming, so I am grateful they are able to hear me tell this story. Their presence among us this morning is not only a testament to their continuing care and support for me as I proceed along my journey, but also to their broad-minded witness of Christian discipleship.)
I share this story with you because sometimes I think we focus more on how our fellow sheep cause us problems, rather than remembering the strength, courage and protection that they afford us when we are in spiritual difficulty. This is why being part of a Christian community is so important. We need each other. Our simple presence and sharing a common life together in community, even in its most routine ways, offers more support and care for each than we often probably realize.
So if you are a sheep who can hear the voice of the shepherd, be on the lookout for the sheep sidling up to your for help and support. And if you are a sheep who can’t hear the voice of the shepherd right now, don’t run. Stick with the flock and trust in its protection until the voice of the Good Shepherd breaks through again for you, too, because it will. Amen.