Sermon, Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2019)

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)

I do not know if I am the only person who has ever tried this -- part of me likes to think I am, part of me knows I’m not -- but by occasion I have put my dog on facetime just so he could hear my voice and I got to watch his reaction. On one hand, you get to witness the dog’s excited at the sound of a familiar, beloved voice, on the other hand, there is confusion because the body that goes with the voice isn’t there.  We use our voices to forge relationships with our dogs: with a decisive voice, we might train our dogs to obey certain commands – sit, fetch, stay, jump, roll over – and we use treats to reward such obedience; with sweet words, we convey satisfaction – good boy – and with a stern tone we discipline bad behavior and other ways of acting out. 

Personally, my life has been enriched by the presence of several dogs, including, right now, two loving schnauzers who have been trained so well that they not only listen to my voice for whichever command is given them, they will also evaluate said command and decide if it is appropriate or otherwise fitting for the command to be executed.  Now that’s obedience!

My sheep hear my voice and they follow me. Jesus in his teaching uses several times metaphors of sheep and shepherding to illustrate the religious life. In the Gospel according of John, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, who lies down his life for his sheep(John 10:1-21), -- our reading follows right after this discourse -- and in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, found in both the Gospel according to Matthew and Luke, Jesus presents a shepherd who leaves his flock to search or the one lost sheep, and who rejoices with his friends, family, and neighbors when the one lost sheep is found again. (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7) This parable is told to teach repentance and the return of the penitent to the community, and the Church has always recognized Jesus himself as its own shepherd. 

Jesus not only uses these shepherding metaphors because they would have been recognizable to his listeners, just as stories about dogs and pets are recognizable to us today, but also because they reverberate throughout Scripture. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Psalm 23:1-2 KJV) God is my shepherd, words that have been spoken for centuries and that have given comfort and consolation to countless generations. And I trust, will continue to do so.

And yet, though Jesus is very intentional when he uses shepherding metaphors in his teaching – for these metaphors doreveal to us something about the way God cares for each of us – we also have to be careful to not lull ourselves into a sheepish faith. My sheep know my voice and they followme, Scripture says. I guess I am too stubborn, too rebellious, too critical, too quizzical, too cynical, to follow anyone or anything blindly, and I suspect that be true for most of us, if not all of us, but I would be foolish not to recognize the many instances in our history when blind obedience has been preached from pulpits as a way to create a devout acquiescence to the destructive ways of the world, often resulting in great human tragedy. That is not what the good news is about. When Jesus says: my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me, I do not hear simply a divine call to faithful, trusting obedience, but an expression of the everlasting, saving, and life-giving bond that exists between God and God’s people. Just like a herd of sheep is tied to its shepherd when they recognize his voice, we too are fundamentally connected to God as we journey in this life towards wellness, wholeness, and redemption. The faithful expression of the shepherd and his sheep is one of holy covenant between God and all that has been created.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 KJV)

I suspect we all have different ideas about what it means to be within that valley of the shadow of death – I know Dorcas Tibatha might be able to tell us, but Scripture leaves her silent. (Acts 9:36-43) Perhaps another witness might help us out. The McCallie School in Chattanooga released earlier this week a video featuring of one its current graduating seniors, Will Hunt. Though the movie is strictly secular, it does not mention God, it does not mention faith, its story illustrates to me what it is to be in that valley, and what the ancient notion that God’s comfort is there with us, might actually mean. In his sophomore year, Will is training to participate in a gymnastics championship, he is in the prime of his life – young, athletic, talented, not a real worry in the world. But then he gets sick, very sick; it begins with a cough and a shortness of breath, but doctors soon discover that Will’s heart only functions at 20% or normal capacity.

The movie shows Will’s medical recovery – first, he gets an artificial heart to support his God-given heart that is broken. After extensive rehabilitation, on the day he is about to go home, he learns that a donor match has been found and that he will get a new heart, and a new lease on life. The movie shows how friends and family, students and teachers, rally around him, with small tokens of care and support, and with grand and moving tributes at school and in the community. Above all, the movie shows one young man’s determination to make it through an unimaginable challenge, together with his community, and all who surround him.  

My friends, I do not wish to preach a blind and unrealistic optimism; too many people, facing any kind of disease, accident, or misfortune, are not as lucky to survive, and it is one of the great heresies of the modern world to assume, if only subconsciously, that those who die too soon, die because they didn’t pray hard enough, didn’t have faith strong enough, didn’t trust God deep enough. However, I am absolutely convicted that God is with us, all the time and everywhere. In the midst of sickness, depression, addiction, hardship, God is there, to walk with us and to lift us up, for God has walked this road before. Part of our Easter acclamation is exactly this, that God dies a shameful death, so that the darkest experiences of human existence, including death, are forever known within the realm of God.

Life is short, and life certainly can be hard, but still, with the psalmist and all who have made this journey before us, we joyfully, defiantly sing: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; we sing these words as a sure expression of faith that within that valley of death and despair, God indeed is with us, to bring us to the fullness of life. This is the shepherd’s promise and we follow his voice for we believe it to be true; no blind obedience but a faithful trust that binds us to the good shepherd. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:6 KJV) Amen.