Monday, May 9, 2022

The Shepherd's Voice


John 10:22-30

Easter 4 / Year C

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”

I was a half-miler in high school; two laps around the track running about as fast as you can for about two minutes.  I have a very clear memory from the first big invitational relay meet I ran in.  It featured teams from dozens of schools, so the competition was steep.  I was the lead runner for our four-man relay team and I wanted to get us off to a good start.  Going down the back stretch of the second lap I was in the lead, but running out of gas.  Runners talk about ‘hitting the wall’ where one of two things happens.  Either your body forces you to take your foot of the accelerator or you discover a newfound source of energy and break through the wall, feeling like you have been shot out of a canon. 

Now there were a lot of people at the meet and most of them were in the stands across the field from where I was.  Up until then I had not noticed them, but all of the sudden, completely out of the blue, I heard my youth minister’s voice yell out, “Come on Keith.  You can do it!”  Well, hearing his voice and words of encouragement helped me to break through the wall of physical exhaustion and finish strong on my leg of the race.

There are a lot of voices out there trying to tell us a lot of different things about the world and about ourselves; some more helpful than others.  We each have internal voices competing for our attention: You aren’t good enough.  Take a break, you deserve it.  I should do something thoughtful for a friend who is down in the dumps.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.  How can we ever know when the voice we are hearing is God’s voice?

I attended two different clergy meetings this past week.  On Monday it was a group of Suffolk clergy.  On Tuesday, our bishop called together diocesan clergy for a day retreat at Chanco.  Monday’s conversation turned dark and discouraging very quickly as participants focused on all the challenges facing the churches we serve: low attendance, lack of resources, dwindling membership, conflict, apathy, a feeling of being lost, a feeling of being helpless.  By the end of the meeting I was ready to climb into bed and pull the covers up over my head.  The voices of that conversation nearly did me in.

Our diocesan meeting the next day had a very different tone.  People were optimistic, energized, aware of opportunities, eager to launch new initiatives.  There was a lot of laughter in the room throughout the day, which is a good indication of health and well-being, isn’t it!

How do you know if it is God’s voice speaking to you?  Well, one thing is sure, God’s voice always contributes something positive and hopeful.  The devil’s work is always as an accuser: you are too old, too small, too stupid, too fat, too poor, too unskilled, too whatever.  The devil’s work is to tear into and to tear apart.  God is about the work of binding wounds, bringing together, and building up.

“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”  How do you know it is God’s voice?  Because it is the voice calling you to green pastures.  It is the voice leading you to still waters.  It is the voice in the midst of the deep valley saying, “Stay close to me.  I know the way through here.”  You know it is God’s voice because when other voices urge you to collapse at a wall of despair, God’s voice gives you the spiritual and emotional energy to break through it.

God’s shepherdly voice always points the way for us to follow, but this doesn’t mean it is always comforting.  I think often of the image of the shepherd’s crook.  The crozier every bishop carries as a symbol of office is modeled on it and it features prominently in the design of our Good Shepherd stained glass window.  A shepherd’s crook is long (to extend one’s reach) and has two ends: one pointed and the other with a hook.  A shepherd uses the pointed end to prod a sheep in the rear to make it go in a direction it is resisting.  He uses the hook to pull the sheep back from going someplace it shouldn’t; literally yanking a sheep out of harm’s way.  Now, most of the time a shepherd’s verbal commands suffice, but every now and then the crook is brought to bear.

As you listen for God’s voice recognize sometimes it will call you to do things you are hesitant to do.  Maybe you are afraid or unsure of yourself or just in the mood to laze around.  Sometimes God’s voice includes the words ‘go’ or ‘do’ or ‘act’ or ‘right now.’  Sometimes the words function like the hook as a warning: ‘careful,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ ‘repent.’

On this Mother’s Day, I hope you have some wonderful memories of when and how God spoke to you through the words of your mother: words of encouragement, words of healing, words of correction when necessary, words of affirmation and praise, words of unshakable and unfathomable love. 

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”