Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
May 11, 2014
If you’ve ever worked in a preschool or a church nursery, you’ve seen the uncanny voice recognition between mothers and their children. In a room full of laughing, crying, shouting, running children, a mother quickly recognizes the sound of her own child. Similarly, when a mother calls her child’s name, that child, and only that child, looks up from play or tears, quickly making eye contact with Mother. Sometimes the response is “I want to stay and have more fun.” And sometimes it is “Please rescue and comfort me.” We are less familiar with the metaphor of sheep and shepherd Jesus used affirming that when he calls your name, he leads you to the rhythm of protection and nurture of the abundant life.
I hope you are expecting to recognize the voice of Jesus from your new pastor. I hope you are praying for your Search and Call Committee to discern God’s guidance to the pastor who will speak to you on Jesus’ behalf.
While calling a pastor may have some parallels with a company hiring a CEO, the spiritual process and mentality is totally different. As a congregation you are not only asking a pastor to lead you, you are committing yourselves to follow the pastor. Believe me, I know we pastors are not perfect or infallible, but believing that God has called this pastor and this congregation together, you have a responsibility to listen to your new pastor for the voice of Jesus. Not only are you committing to follow the voice of Jesus you hear, but you are committing to do everything you can to make your pastor the best pastor possible with affirmation and not with criticism.
In the lifetimes of all of you in this congregation you have had pastors bringing their ministry careers to their climax with you. I have heard over and over again from many of you how much you want and need a pastor much earlier in career to build a future. I believe you are right. But I also know that will bring a host of generational differences from what you have been used to. When you are uncomfortable and unsettled by those differences, I urge you to listen carefully for the voice of Jesus.
John 10:1-10 introduces Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. In the second century it was the most common visual depiction of Jesus and continued to be popular for another 900 years. Not until 1186 was Jesus pictured on the cross. I wrestled with this passage a lot to get this message together. Jesus had been interacting with his opponents and speaking of his followers in the third person as though they were not there. In John 10 Jesus spoke a cautionary word to would be shepherds but had no instructions for the sheep.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.
9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
When Jesus identified bandits who harm the sheep violently and the thieves who steal them by deception, he clearly did not condemn the Hebrew prophets or John the Baptist among those who came before him. In our day of a multitude of competing voices claiming to speak for Jesus, we are challenged to discern his authentic voice.
In contrast with the Synoptic Gospels, John does not record Jesus’ parables. This Good Shepherd discourse is more of a cryptic, enigmatic proverb. The shepherd, gatekeeper and gate images are not intended to be logically sorted out but to be different ways of illuminating Jesus’ relationship to his disciples.
John placed the Good Shepherd discourse between the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall and the Feast of Dedication in the winter. I think he was intentionally ambiguous so his readers would associate Jesus with the Temple as the gate to heaven. Jesus as the means of access between our world and God’s realm.
It’s not exactly In-N-Out Burger, but Jesus is not just collecting sheep in the fold. He also leads them out to pasture. When Jesus calls your name, he leads you to the rhythm of protection and nurture of the abundant life.
One way to identify the pseudo-shepherds who are really violent bandits and deceptive thieves is that they come only to steal, kill and destroy. I am at least leery of those who focus on tearing down someone else’s ministry more than building up the people they are supposed to serve.
I love Acts 2:42-47 that we read earlier. It gives us the essential ingredients of healthy church life: the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. When the sheep are together, they do better at hearing and following the voice of Jesus.
I quoted Susan Andrews, the Executive Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery last week. She tells of an experience early in her ministry that showed Jesus as the gate to the abundant life. She was a chaplain intern in the cancer ward of St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C. In an isolation unit she found a wretched shell of a human being -- legs and arms chewed up by gangrene, sweat pouring out of a shaking, stinking body. "Dear God," She thought, "what can I possibly say to this man?" The answer came intuitively. The Twenty-third Psalm suddenly welled up in her. As the familiar cadence filled that putrid room, the creature before her changed. He stopped shaking. He looked into her eyes and began to speak the words with her. In that moment, he traveled back home, back into the rooms of a long-lost faith. When this child of God died an hour later, he had been welcomed by a loving God who had never left him. Christian Century, April 14, l999, p. 413
I know I’m dating myself, but I vividly remember watching the 1973 TV movie I Heard the Owl Call My Name which motivated me to read Margaret Craven’s 1967 book on which it was based. A dying, young Anglican priest serving Inuit people in Alaska discovered the courage and grace needed to face his death when he heard his own name in the hooting of the owls. He took it as a powerful word from God. When Jesus calls your name, he leads you to the rhythm of protection and nurture of the abundant life.
Middle Eastern shepherds do not drive their sheep ahead of them and herd them with dogs. The shepherd goes ahead and calls them by name to follow. Jesus did not say the sheep should follow the shepherd. He said the sheep knew the shepherd’s voice and would follow. Sometimes we make the spiritual life too complicated. When you read Scripture, when you pray, when you are worshipping, learning and serving with the Church, Jesus is calling your name. When you hear it, you follow him.
Your new pastor will soon be with you and calling you with a different tone and cadence than you have been used to. You may take a little while to learn to recognize the voice of Jesus, but it will come if you listen for it. As you hear Jesus in the voice of your new pastor, you will be called into spiritual protection from bandits and robbers, and from hazards of our world. As you hear Jesus in the voice of your new pastor, you will be called out to spiritual nurture that will enable you to grow.
I know theology, ethics and worship matter. But I also know following Jesus is not about agreeing with correct doctrine, moral behavior or regular ritual. Those are too superficial and impersonal. Jesus calls us by name. Have you heard him call your name?
Damien grew up in a low income housing project with a single mother who had very limited resources of any kind for raising her children. She lacked the fortitude to run the drinking-drugging thugs off her front stoop each evening. Despite their harassment, Damien was never sucked into their world. In high school he got to know several of the kids in our church’s youth group and became an active and valued part of the group. He excelled in school and was a finalist in the NJ State Spelling Bee. He became an active leader in the regional youth activities of our denomination, along with our son David. I’d pick him up at his house to go to the monthly regional youth meetings. He never wanted me or David to wade through the thugs on the stoop to come to the door. He watched for us and came to the car ignoring the taunts of “You going with those church dudes again?” People in the church helped him navigate the financial aid process to get a full scholarship to Messiah College in PA, graduating in four years. Now about 40 and recently married, he regularly posts on Facebook the lessons he learned about following Jesus from that church. Damien heard Jesus call his name.
As you listen to 1 Peter 2:19-25, think about when you have heard your shepherd, Jesus, call your name.
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.