“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27
Back in 2004 a man named Frank Warren was working at a suicide prevention hotline.[i] After listening to so many secrets shared in those phone conversations, Frank started in his daily life handing out self-addressed postcards and inviting strangers to mail him a secret – an anonymous secret. Since then, week after week, he has received those secrets in his mailbox, sometimes in simple writing on the cards and sometimes elaborately and artistically decorated. This collection has grown into books and museum exhibits and an entire website. The project came to be known as Post Secret.
Secrets like: “I tell people I’m new in town to explain why I have no friends. I’ve lived here my entire life.” Or this one, which was hard to hear: “I always felt ignored. I thought church would be different. It’s not.”
Or this one, which took my breath away: “When people I love leave voicemails on my phone, I always save them in case they die tomorrow and I have no other way of hearing their voice ever again.”
I don’t save every voice mail. But that particular secret reminded me that I have saved a few. There’s one from my dear friend Peter on the day six years ago that I found out I was assigned to the New Jersey Synod and would soon begin the process of being matched with a congregation here. Peter and I were both realizing that we would soon no longer live near each other as we had for the eleven years before that.
The voice mail isn’t particularly profound. In it Peter tells me that he’s excited for me to take this step. He tells me that he wants to hear all about it. He tells me that he loves me. I didn’t save it because I was worried that Peter would die. And I didn’t save it because I would never hear his voice. We call and text each other across time zones. But sometimes you just want to hear the voice of someone who loves you right when you need to hear it.
There’s something so powerful about the voice of a person we love. We can pick it out of a crowd. It helps us know that someone is there even before we can see them.[ii] That voice can be the sound of home, even from far away.
In a gospel like today’s – from right in the middle of John’s gospel – we might twist ourselves into knots trying to understand shepherding in the ancient world. We could dissect the metaphor to death. But instead, let’s notice what Jesus says as the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me.
Maybe you’re thinking: “Well, that’s all well and good for those who knew Jesus personally, the ones who actually got to hear his voice as he taught them and challenged them and soothed them. What about the rest of us, the ones right here in this time and place?”
We do have Jesus’ voice in scripture. We have his teachings, but as he reminds us today, we also have his actions: “The works that I do in my Father’s name,” he says, “testify to me.” Testify. What Jesus does bears witness to who he is and what he is about.
And he’s done quite a lot in those first nine chapters of John’s gopsel leading up to this one. He’s had long conversations with people – with a Samaritan women beside a well, pushed to the edges of society by other people’s judgment. And with Nicodemus, who brings hard questions to Jesus in the middle of the night.
Jesus has fed people by the thousands. He has healed again and again and again – a man who had been ill for 38 years, another man blind from birth. Jesus has refused to let a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death, pointing out the hypocrisy of her accusers. In what he does and what he says, Jesus proclaims that every person is worthy of attention and time and abundant life. Everyone deserves to hear his voice.
Just last week we heard Jesus say to Peter: Feed my sheep…tend my sheep…feed my sheep. Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts, Peter uses his voice to tell a dead woman to get up. He calls out to her to get up off her deathbed – and she does. She returns to life. I’m guessing no one was more surprised than Peter.
Maybe you’re thinking: “Good for Peter. After all he’s been through, he gets this win. But I can’t bring someone back to life just by telling them to get up. That’s not how it works.”
But there are other voices in the story. There’s the voice of the unnamed disciples, who know to send for Peter. There are the voices of the messengers, who convey the urgent plea to Peter: “Please come without delay.” There are the voices of the widows, gathered around to mourn together and to tell stories about the beautiful clothing that Tabitha had made and given away.
We can use our voices in so many ways. We can be the ones who send for help when someone is in trouble, help that is beyond what we can provide ourselves. We can be the messengers who find our way to the resources that a person needs, especially if that person is unable to find their way to those resources on their own. We can sit with people who are grieving – to share and to hear stories about the dead and to cry right along with those who mourn.
We can use our voices to be with and to be for those who have been pushed to edges by society’s judgment, to talk with those who have questions about God, to share our own questions, to feed the hungry, to stand up for the persecuted.
It all sounds risky. I know it does. Sometimes even the thought of using our voices in this way makes our hearts leap into our throats and get stuck there. In those moments we trust in the unshakable promise that Jesus makes to the sheep who know his voice: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
When we truly believe that promise of the Good Shepherd – the promise that we will not perish – then we live as though we have nothing to lose. We can be bold in the ways that we speak and the ways that we serve. We can live as if eternal life weren’t some paradise off in the distance, but something we catch glimpses of in the here and now.
What we say and what we do as followers of Jesus in the world testifies to who Jesus is and what he is about. It’s how we bear witness to his love and goodness. It’s how others come to know his voice too.
I like to sit in my back yard at night. I sometimes ask God to talk to me. Help me hear what you want me to do, Lord. Help me hear your voice. A voice hasn’t come from the clouds. There have been no tablets descending from heaven with a message chiseled on them.
But a couple of nights ago I saw the first fireflies of the season. Just a few – and not for long.
I thought: There’s a message – these flickers of hope. I can do that. I can shine a little light in the world. I can be a voice, a presence, a comfort in someone else’s darkness.
The shepherd’s voice comes to us in all kinds of ways. And even when it’s hard to hear, he’s already shown us how to live. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” John 21:12
Yesterday morning one of my favorite Christian writers died. Rachel Held Evans was only 37 years old, and I can’t yet fathom that the world has lost her voice. In her most recent book Inspired, she shares some wonderful wisdom about many fascinating stories in the Bible. Today’s gospel comes up in a chapter on fish stories. Rachel tells about a time when she was enjoying a meal at an Episcopal church after an event. As she often did, she asked the strangers around the table what their favorite Bible stories were. One young mother said, “The one where Jesus meets his disciples on the beach.”
Rachel agreed. She said she liked that one too, and then Rachel proceeded to share a theory that in rabbinic numerology the number 153 – the number of fish the disciples catch – might represent completion or wholeness. Or it might correspond to a specific prophecy in Ezekiel that describes a great river full of all kinds of fish flowing out of a restored temple. Rachel also noted that the net is full but not torn, so the net might represent the church, holding a great diversity of fish together in unity.
That’s the challenge of these curious stories in scripture. There are countless ways to read them, and I’m grateful for the scholars and thinkers who help me find all kinds of meaning in these texts. But sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the heart of scripture.
This one is full of delicious, weird details. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus standing there on the shore, even though he’s been with them twice since his resurrection. There’s the fact that they listen to this supposed stranger when he tells them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. And then once Peter realizes that it’s Jesus, Peter – oh, Peter – Peter, who is naked, puts on his clothes before jumping into the water and scrambling the 100 yards to the sand. Peter leaves the rest of his friends on their own with those 153 fish.
But in the midst of all those crazy moments, there’s this: Jesus beside a fire, cooking some fish and warming some bread. “Come and have breakfast,” he says.
It always moves me that the disciples are trying to fish in the first place. I say “trying” because, as you may recall, it doesn’t go very well for them at first – until Jesus shows up. When the resurrected Jesus has been with them before, it’s been behind the doors of a locked room where the disciples had huddled together in fear. In that locked room Jesus has said to them over and over again “Peace be with you.” He has breathed the Holy Spirit into them. He’s told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples know that Jesus expects them to do something big. Something worthy of what they have learned by watching him and listening to him. There’s a mission on the horizon, although it’s not yet clear what it will be.
They must be so scared. And confused. Where is he sending us? How will we know what to do or what to say? What if people don’t listen? What if we get hurt, arrested, killed?
All of those questions. All of those living, breathing, logical questions.
So they go fishing. It’s what they used to do for a living. They know the smell of the salt air on the open sea. They know the rhythms of the waves. They know how the nets feel in their hands. It’s what they know.
That’s what we often do when we’re looking at an uncertain future. We get scared. We huddle up with people we trust. And we turn back to what we know.
I remember standing in front of the building where my PhD-level statistics class would meet. It was the first day of the quarter, and I was scared. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the desire to be back in the high school classroom. Being a teacher was crazy hard, but at least I knew how to do it. Statistics, not so much.
I remember the day that I was ordained as a pastor. I felt the Holy Spirit so powerfully that day – and yet a part of me wanted to go back to being sixteen and sitting in the pew and asking questions about the pastor’s sermon. It felt daunting to be the one now responsible for preaching that weekly sermon.
But going backwards doesn’t get us anywhere. It certainly doesn’t get us closer to the future into which God is leading us.
When the way forward is unclear or overwhelming, what do we do other than going backward?
We have some hints in the exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus keeps asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, in fact. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.”
And then Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “Wait until everything is clear and certain before you do anything. Wait until you get to know the sheep and like them and decide that they’re worthy of your attention.” He doesn’t even say love the sheep in this moment. He tells Peter to feed the sheep.
And Jesus has already done just that. He has gathered his friends around a campfire and fed them breakfast.
Jesus seems to be saying, “No matter what uncertainty or fear you might feel, try doing something. Act as if you believe that wonderful things can happen when you step into that unknown. Act as if the kingdom of God is already fully here on earth. Act as if you believe resurrection is possible.”
Do something. Feed people. Take care of them in the way that God would take care of them. They still belong to God. Feed my sheep, Jesus says.
Imagine that ragtag, half-dressed group of fishermen on a beach at dawn, chomping on some fish and bread. These are the folks who will soon be sent out with the power to change the world with their message. They’re going to tell people the story of a God who loves us into life and whom death could not defeat.
But first – before all of that – they eat.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”[ii]
Come and have breakfast. And then say yes to the life God opens before you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ