May 8, 2022 The 4th Sunday of Easter The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23;Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
From the Gospel according to John, “(Jesus said) ‘My sheep hear my voice … and follow me.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is one of those occasions where the sermon I planned for this morning just didn’t seem to fit with our needs right now as a parish and, frankly, as a nation. And so as much as I would have liked to have focused solely on the role of our Savior as our Shepherd, the Holy Spirit has continued to nudge my words towards a deeper message, a deeper challenge, a deeper understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus as our Shepherd.
In our reading from the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice … they know it … and they follow me.” As idyllic and wonderful, as straight-forward the image of Jesus as a Good Shepherd gently leading and guiding us is, it pales with the realities of everyday life. Life that is filled with constant noise, lies, half-truths, and distractions. In spite of all the marvelous technology at our fingertips, technology designed to improve communication, people are more prone to misunderstand what their neighbor is saying than ever before because we have ceased to truly listen when someone speaks. Many seem to have turned a deaf ear to the voices and needs of others, especially if those needs, those voices come from people different from us or from those with whom we disagree.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, suggests that when we encounter someone with an opinion far different from ours – even an irritating or angry person - we should listen to them and try to discern what it is that God is doing and saying in their life, as well as what God might be trying to say to us in and through their words. Remember: in baptism, we promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons – not just those whom we like or with whom we agree. Bonhoeffer says that we must take time to listen to the other in our midst because Christians live in community and not alone, and more often than not, God speaks to us through the words and actions of others just as our words and actions speak volumes to others about our relationship with God in Christ. But in order to hear the voice of others, we have to listen and listen actively.
And therein lies our challenge because with all the noise around us, it is difficult to hear and truly listen to the voice of others, the voice of God, let alone that voice that calls from deep within us to pause and reflect upon how to truly follow the Good Shepherd – follow everything he said.
It is no wonder why we ache, we crave, for moments of absolute silence. Silence like that which follows a heavy snowstorm as the falling snow acts like insulation muffling every sound outdoors. I find that kind of silence incredibly peaceful because it is in those silent moments that I can hear my own inner voice and the voice of God most clearly. There is something marvelous about silence. It can be calming just as it can be alarming because, to be frank, most of us do not like silence that lasts beyond a few minutes. But we need silence. We need it desperately. Reflecting on our human need for silence, The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta in her book, The Nearness of God writes, “In silence we face ourselves, with our distractions, preoccupations, resentments, and all our inner turbulence – and we face God.” In times of silence we come face to face with who we really are and we have no choice but to listen. These are “God moments” to be cherished and embraced because they help filter out the distracting sounds of daily life so that we begin to hear each other, and more importantly, learn to hear and recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd who never ceases to call us to serve, to love without limits, to not judge others but rather, forgive and be merciful to them, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the alien and stranger, to bind up the wounds of those around us; to learn to hear and recognize the voice the Shepherd who forever calls us home.
That is the crux of the gospel, Jesus Christ forever calls us home. But we can’t follow him home if we can’t hear him, and we can’t hear him if we don’t know the sound of his voice. And we can’t know the sound of his voice if we immerse ourselves in endless noise.
In my own experience, not only do I hear the voice of God in times of silence, but when I choose to truly listen to my neighbor God often reveals something within my own self that needs to be explored that much further and perhaps even changed.
In our reading from The Acts of the Apostles, Peter chose to listen, to hear the voices of those in need and because he listened, and put his planned schedule on hold in order to respond to them, scores of people throughout the city came to faith in Christ. “My sheep hear my voice … and follow me.”
The Psalmist describes God as a shepherd who is present with us through every day of our lives and offers the promise, “surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” And yet, the Psalmist isn’t suggesting that if we live a certain way – if we adopt a code of holiness or self-purity, as wonderfully helpful and transforming amendment of life can be, that somehow we will never experience hardship, that nothing bad will everhappen to us. That isn’t the reality of life or what Holy Scripture tells us.
A careful reading of this text suggests a more realistic, deeper, and hopeful message that the Psalmist intended. “Surely your goodness and mercy – your loving-kindness, your grace, your presence – will pursue me, chase after me, hound me, follow me wherever I go – and call me home, call me to remember your ways and values, to listen for and seek you in all places, in all persons, and at all times. No matter how we treat each other, no matter how we treat you, God, your grace and mercy – your love for us – a love willing to die to save us – will forever pursue us and beckon us to embrace you and bring us safely home.” The promise of scripture is that whether we choose to listen to and follow the Shepherd’s voice or not, it will still chase after us. It is when we choose to hear and follow it, to embrace it, that our lives begin to change, and communities are transformed one person at a time.
Wars, killings, assaults on established human rights, spouting lies and half-truths, are not God’s way. We cannot change this world overnight, but we can change how we, as people of God, choose to live in community. We can choose to truly listen to each other and discern the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking through one another and grasp what God might be saying to us about how to live in this moment, right now when our nation is being ripped apart. But there’s challenge here: such understanding requires taking time for silence. It requires quieting the noise that crowds our lives. It means committing to see Christ in each and every person we meet and then listening – actively listening and pondering their words before offering a response. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” The Good Shepherd who is forever present with us and pursues us through every step of life’s journey, says that his sheep hear his voice and then act upon it. As the words of that old gospel hymn says, “…in order for there to be peace on earth … it has to begin with me.”
So I invite you to join me this week to immerse ourselves in silence and active listening. Listen to the voices around you and consider what it is that God might be saying to you through their words, as well as saying to you through sacred silence.
May God’s goodness and mercy continue to pursue, chase, and call to us until we recognize it so easily and naturally that it permeates every relationship – our relationship with God and our neighbor – a relationship marked by deep listening. For then, friends, in the words of the Psalmist, we will indeed, dwell in the house of the Lord, our eternal home, forever. Amen.
 Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta, Nearness of God (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2010) , 48