Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Sometimes the lectionary, the prescribed readings for the day picked out years and years ago, are just what we need. After this week of intended and unintended explosions, failed legislation, ongoing war… We need a calm Shepherd, whose voice we recognize, who knows the name of each sheep, who carries a rod and staff that comfort. We get all that and more in Psalm 23, Revelation 7 and John 10.
Jesus tells us that sheep listen for and recognize the voice of the shepherd when she speaks. Until I was a parent I didn’t realize there are different kinds of cries from your children. Some cries are tired whines; some are intended to get your attention immediately. You learn to tell the difference between a cry of physical pain and the cry of hurt feelings. An attentive parent knows the sound of their child’s cry.
Of course children also know the voices of their moms and dads. Sometimes an “I love you” is heartfelt and sometimes it contains a bit of distraction. Sometimes a yell is in anger, sometimes it is impatience and sometimes the shout is more about fear. (like when I yelled really loud and panicky for my kids to go the basement because the sky had turned green and I was afraid there was a tornado coming.)
I also think about voices in terms of singing. This past week Cecilia was working on a Carole King song. As a family, we heard “Up on the roof” so often that we all started humming and singing it, each with our own inflections or operatic warbles. I could tell who was singing: not by the song, but by the voice of the singer.
The voice of the Shepherd that we hear this morning is a voice that knows us, that reassures, cares, protects, and guides.
In the gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as the shepherd who opens the gate for the sheep. Later on, Jesus says he himself is the gate to the sheepfold. As sheep, we are to follow the sound of the shepherd’s voice which we will recognize. We are assured that the good shepherd cares so much for the sheep that she will put herself in danger to protect the sheep. The hired hand would not do such a thing, but the true shepherd will not run when the wolf approaches.
Jesus says all of this earlier in chapter 10, verses we did not hear today. Nor did we hear the response by some of the temple authorities. “He is possessed, he is raving mad! Why do you listen to him?”
Sheep herding is not new to Jesus’ listeners, it is part of their lives. It is also part of the religious imagery the people know. Psalm 23 is in the Jewish canon – which could be why the religious leaders are so incensed. Who is this young rabbi to call himself the shepherd? He may be a descendant of King David the shepherd, but he is a carpenter rabbi. And a crazy one at that. The scene ends.
In the next scene, (the text we heard today) it is a new day and place. It is Hanukkah, time for the feast of the dedication of the Temple. It is the time when the Jewish people remember the story told in I and II Maccabees, when there was oil enough for the lamp in the temple to be lit for only one night. Yet miraculously the lamp stayed lit for 8 nights.
John gives us all these details: winter, Hanukkah, Jesus walking in the Temple – on Solomon’s Porch, the place where King Solomon would have traditionally rendered judgment on those who were pleading for justice. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=2530
This is the place, this is the time when the Temple Authorities once again come with their questions or are they taunts?
“How long are you going to keep us in suspense? Are you really the Messiah? Just tell us – for once.”
At least some of the Temple authorities heard Jesus’ previous long speech about sheep and shepherds. And some of them deemed him crazy. But here they are -asking again. Asking who he is.
Earlier Jesus says: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold – I must lead them too and they will hear my voice. There will be one flock and one shepherd.”
I love Jesus like this: reassuring; inclusive, merciful.
But this time when the question comes – Are you really the Messiah – there is frustration, exasperation in the calm shepherd’s voice; his answer is not so gracious.
“You don’t believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, they follow me.”
This is Jesus the gate, closing the door on those who do not recognize his voice, who do not follow him. This is Jesus the protector, keeping the sheep he knows safe and keeping the sheep he does not know out of the sheepfold. He is clear that the sheep that belong will not be snatched by the wolf or thieves. They will be with him and with God.
This week, when people were glued to the news from Boston, from Texas, from the Senate, we heard lots of voices. Voices that gave information, sometimes inaccurate information, voices that were scared and angry, voices that were devastated and full of mourning.
Certainly this week we saw the care of the shepherd, the willingness to lay down one’s life. In Boston, some people ran away but some ran toward the chaos, to help others at the finish line. There was a group of traumatized war veterans who were running the marathon to help restore their own health. And yet when they saw the need, they ran straight to the victims, offering their own clothing as bandages and tourniquets.
Usually I want a shepherd like this, who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep, a shepherd who is all merciful and all loving. I want to be near God who knows peace, who is peace, who leaves peace in her wake.
Yet this week when some senators closed their ears to the voices of the people, to the voices of outrage about the easy availability of guns in this country, I understand and maybe even want a shepherd like the one Jesus becomes in this passage – a shepherd who says “You aren’t listening, I am shutting you out.” God the gate.
Despite the level of violence and the swath of destruction they caused around Boston, I am less sure about closing the gate on the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, perhaps because so many questions remain. Does God know their names? Did they think they were hearing God when they planned such devastating violence? Do I want God the Gate to shut them out too? Is it only God who can be the gate? Can the sheep close the gate on other sheep? What about mourning? What about forgiveness? After the Nickel Mines incident, it seemed that mourning and forgiveness occurred simultaneously in some Amish families. How does one learn to be a sheep like that?
This week I heard from a friend who has been living with worry and fear for years. He ended his email this way. “May The Lord speak through you to comfort His worried sheep.”
In Jesus’ metaphor, he is the shepherd, we are the sheep. But if we step back from this metaphor and into another, we are also called to be the hands and feet, and in this case the voice, of Christ.
We cannot hear it often enough, that we are loved, that we are part of a family larger than even this one gathered today. Perhaps if Tamerlan and Dzhokhar had known that they were named and loved by God they would not have needed to make themselves known in such violent ways in Boston. Perhaps if young people on the streets of DC and Prince George’s County, had someone to call them by name, to show them the love of the shepherd, maybe, just maybe, they would be less likely to pull the trigger. Maybe if those who believe they have the right to arm themselves know they are named and loved by the shepherd they would have a sense of protection already.
The good shepherd’s voice is not the only one we hear in these texts this morning. In Revelation there is a great crowd shouting and singing:
Salvation is of our God and of the Lamb! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength to our God forever and ever!
These are voices from every nation, every language. In this vision there is no longer any reason to worry about Temple authorities or the violence and terror of the Empire. Here are people from absolutely every place under the sun waving palm branches and singing in freedom. These are not palm branches waved in anticipation of a military triumph like some may have wished for when Jesus entered Jerusalem. These palms are waved because there has already been triumph. The Lamb is with God and what more can be done than to sing in thanksgiving? (http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter4cn/)
It is not a simple, easy solution. It is not a short term band aid. Joining with others, singing in gratitude, naming each other in love. It is a life time of work, it is our life’s work, to be the joyful, loving voice of God for others, naming and passing peace to all we meet. It is this work that unites us with God, that makes us one with God. Shepherd and sheep together.
As we prepare to sing the hymn I invite us to practice this, naming each other in love. Turn to the people near you. Say their names. If you don’t know their name, just ask. And then tell them, you are God’s beloved child (or sheep). Peace be with you.
May we find our voices joined with God’s voice as we share God’s peace and God’s love in the world.