Sermon, 5/8/22: But Which Voice?

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4 Easter

Psalm 23; Acts 9:36 – 43; Revelation 7:9 – 17; John 10:22 – 30

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

Nothing is wrong with this image, so long as we do not delude ourselves that onto that pastoral glade the sun always shines, without interruption, failing to recall that the green grass requires the moisture which rains brings.  Nothing is wrong unless we ignore the fact that, if Jesus were a true shepherd, he surely got those beautiful, flowing blue garments/robes dirty, in which paintings in museums have portrayed him.  If he were a shepherd, he got them dirty, for as a shepherd he slept on the ground, exposed to the elements.

What is wrong with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd as presented to us today in the Gospel according to John?  My immediate response to my own question is: Absolutely nothing is wrong with this image. There is nothing wrong with it, unless we wish to bestow upon it an image of an idyllic pastoral landscape, where the grass is the green of the poets who speak of Ireland as the Emerald Island.

Nothing is wrong with such an image, until we recall the time and location where Jesus makes the pronouncement that he is a shepherd.  “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.  It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”  Why was he then not out guarding his sheep, instead of entrusting them to the hired hand who, as we read elsewhere, because he is a hired hand, would flee, should sheep-nappers raid the compound.  And, moreover, was he not trained as a carpenter, as was his earthly father Joseph?  Further, by what authority did he command Simon Peter and crew to cast their net off the other side of the boat, and then declare that he, a carpenter (or was he a shepherd?) would make them fisher of men?  Was he an experienced fisherman?  Which image can we trust as the true image of God’s Messiah?

And then, of course, there is the equally important issue of relevance.  In an era of atomic power, supersonic airplanes, and the instant messaging, great is the temptation to disregard these words of John’s gospel, written millennia ago.  Throughout the industrialized world, we rarely have an encounter with a shepherd, such that we would recognize his voice.  Greater still is the temptation to lose ourselves in an academic debate regarding which Jesus is the real Jesus, vying for our attention, for if we debate among ourselves which Jesus is speaking—the carpenter, the fisherman, the shepherd—we  do not have to consider the relevance of his message itself, no matter the stage prop used: the carpenter’s lathe and plane, the shepherd’s rod and staff, or the fisherman’s net.

And this, good people, takes us directly to the issue at hand.  None of these images and nor the countless others which, being constrained by time, I have not listed, upsets me.  For me, they are one and the same person.  None of these images distorts or devalues, in my mind, the message of Jesus.  Jesus addressed each crowd, each gathering in a language which they could easily understand.  But what was it that he taught, whether under the guise of a carpenter, a fisherman, or a shepherd?  How and when do we recognize the voice and the truth, when we hear it?

When television was still in its infancy, ABC TV produced the game show “Who Do You Trust?” It streamed from 10 September 1957 – 27 December 1963.  Over the years, the contestants varied from married couples to complete strangers whose task it was to arrive at the correct answer to a question posed by the host.  Family and friends and strangers in the studio audience called out answers.  This was a television quiz show where much laughter resounded, and, of course, prizes were awarded.  I recall thinking as a teenager, if the contestants had spent more time reading and studying history and using their own power of reasoning, they would stand a fairer chance of choosing the correct answer. 

On the TV set, many preferred to listen to voices, extraneous voices.  What John’s gospel offers to us today is not a TV show.  Millennia removed and predating the show “Who Do You Trust?” the story of the Good Shepherd addresses real life issues.  The story of the Good Shepherd, so I suggest to you, is deeply relevant to us in the year 2022, a year plagued by disinformation, withheld information, and abuses of and attacks on a shared common trust.  Whom should we trust, when public figures speak about the “public trust,” and when every other word uttered and much of their public demeanor warn us not to trust them, even as the appeal is made: “You can trust me to do what is right for you?” 

Facing such a situation of uncertainty, we draw the wagons of our lives into a circle, to fend off the enemy, turning more and more inwardly, until we declare: only my nation can be trusted, only my immediate family can be trusted, only I can be trusted. Unintentionally, we create a world for ourselves.   But then, Jesus in the Portico of Solomon in the Temple, not on a hillside green, sounds not only the alarm against such thinking and behavior, but offers us as well a means, by which trust can be restored. 

As tempting as the image of Jesus as the mild, protective shepherd may be, and as strong as the longing for “the good old days” may dominate our thinking, we delude ourselves, should we imagine that such was life during the era, in which Jesus lived.  John’s gospel, is not about quiet waters and green pastures.  Both the psalm and the gospel address treachery, deceit, and the presence of those who would betray our trust.  However, rather than sink into despair and lament, and circle the wagons, both the psalmist and the writer of John’s gospel are actually positive and encouraging and inspiring.

God’s Messiah instructs us to be on our guard and to use our power of discernment, God’s supportive rod and staff, which is none other than listening, truly hearing, both with our outer ear and our inner ear, as well as employing our ability to discern, to reason, to sort out what is good and true and holy, an appeal enshrined on the restored Old Opera House (dem Wahren, Schönen, Guten) in Frankfurt, Germany, which was destroyed in WWII, because a people had lost its way.  Never more needed than on this Fourth Sunday in Easter 2022, is the caution of the voice of the Shepherd as he walks under Solomon’s portico:  Know the voice of the true shepherd.

“Who do you trust?”  Yes, the grammar is faulty, but the question is still valid.  In whom do and can you put your confidence?  The question is still valid, if we do not forget that the one who said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” is the same one who said that the kingdom of God is already among us, if we but heed the voice of God the Creator, the one who sent him. The voice that speaks daily to all the faithful, and indeed to all creation, is repeated in the gospel according to Matthew where that voice speaks of promise:

“Come, o blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me….As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it me.” (Mt. 25.34- 40)  May this be the blueprint, by which you and I determine whether the voice that we follow is the voice of the Good Shepherd, a.k.a. carpenter, fisherman, but is most assuredly the voice of God’s Messiah!  Amen