Fourth Sunday of Easter
“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
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:15b
When I was learning to play the piano as a kid, I’ll admit that I didn’t always love to practice. I knew the practicing was necessary in order to get better, but I wasn’t motivated to do it 100 percent of the time. At one point my dad created a record-keeping system that we put on the wall. For each half-hour that I practiced, I could color in a square on a chart. Then, when I had consistently filled in enough squares for a certain period of time, there would be some kind of small reward. Nothing huge – but I’m embarrassed to admit how much I was motivated by that chart. Those external rewards were often enough to get me to do what I otherwise would have avoided.
But there were other times when I would practice without any thought of a reward. Maybe I’d fallen in love with a song from a movie – the theme from “Ice Castles” comes to mind – and I’d really want to learn how to play that song. Maybe I was learning my half of a duet for an upcoming recital, and I didn’t want to let down my partner, so I worked hard on it. Sometimes I got so excited by a piece that I was learning that I didn’t even notice how much time I was sitting at the piano. The progress was its own reward.
Doing it for the reward versus doing it out of love. Both had their place, but one was more satisfying.
Today Jesus reminds us of the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd. The hired hand does what he is obligated to do, but his motivation is purely transactional. Protect the sheep. Get a paycheck. So at the first sign of real danger – a wolf, for example – the hired hand is out of there. The paycheck is not worth his life.
The shepherd, on the other hand, is motivated by something much deeper. The sheep belong to the shepherd. The shepherd loves the sheep, loves them so much that he will face down any danger. The shepherd puts his body between the wolf and the flock and dares the wolf to do its worst. The shepherd’s love makes him do crazy, difficult things, even if it costs him his life.
It’s the Easter season, and in recent weeks we’ve heard stories about the risen Jesus showing up among his followers, standing there in a wounded but very-much-alive body and offering them his peace. In these moments he’s doing a kind of shepherding. He’s gathering them and preparing them for what they will soon be called to do – tell the story, share the news, form the beginnings of the church. Theirs will be dangerous, difficult work. He’s getting them ready to be shepherds too, shepherds who will love people and build community.
But today we go back in time a bit. Before Jesus is arrested. Before he is crucified. Before all of the events we recalled during Holy Week not so long ago. Today we hear Jesus talk about being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but the disciples don’t yet know that he means it literally.
But what prompts this shepherd speech in the middle of John’s gospel? Just before this moment, Jesus has restored the sight of a man who had been blind since birth. This healing sets off a bit of a local ruckus. The religious leaders interrogate the man’s parents, who are scared to be caught up in the drama. They interview the man himself to find out how he was healed. The man tells the truth, which only seems to agitate the leaders more. They drive the man out of town. It’s crazy. On what should have been the most joyous day of this man’s life – a day he can see for the first time – he’s driven out of his community.
Jesus goes to the man out there on the edges of town. Jesus stands with him. Jesus stands up to the authorities who have driven him out.
Jesus’ shepherd speech is not meant merely as the inspiration for stained glass windows and beautiful music. Jesus is showing us how there are other ways that shepherds put themselves on the line for the sheep. It’s not just about dying for the sheep. Sometimes it’s about living in such a way that we risk something – our safety, our comfort, our reputation – in order to stand with those who have been driven out of their safe places.
Our Second Reading from 1 John says: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us to do – to love in truth and action. To lay down our lives for one another not just in what we say, but in what we do.
What does that look like? Sometimes it looks like laboring mightily on a Tag Sale all week long in order to support people who do not have homes and need a way to get back on their feet. Sometimes it looks like what parents do – staying up all night with a sick kid or sacrificing your own wish list so that your kid can do that special summer program or shivering through those extra innings of the game on a chilly night.
Many of you this week have seen the footage from Philadelphia in which two black men were arrested after sitting for a few minutes in a Starbucks while they waited for others to arrive for a meeting. These men did nothing wrong. If sitting in a Starbucks waiting to meet someone is a crime, then I would be serving a life sentence right now. But I am not seen as a threat. And in this country black men too often are. The men were later released without charges, but they spent several hours in custody. Imagine the exhaustion, the fear, the trauma of that experience.
The video is disturbing, but one thing I notice is that there are people who try to intervene on behalf of the men. They challenge what is happening. They attest to the fact that the men were doing nothing wrong. One woman records everything with her phone so that we are able to witness it for ourselves. Those people are doing shepherd’s work, putting something on the line on behalf of another’s safety. They are loving not just in word and speech, but in truth and action. It made me ask myself if I would do the same in that situation.
As we read and sing today about the good shepherd, it might be tempting to think of that image as quaint. It’s something we dust off for funerals and on this one Sunday a year, but what does shepherding really have to do with our modern life?
Jesus knows that we would prefer to be the hired hands. Just do what we are obligated to do and run at the first sign of danger. But Jesus reminds us that there’s plenty of shepherding to do, plenty of powers that threaten the most vulnerable among us, plenty of people who have been chased their whole lives by all kinds of wolves. As Christians we don’t run from those fights. We run toward them. We have been loved by the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. And so we are called to live a sacrificial kind of love…a love that costs something…a love that can change the world.
May we, like the Good Shepherd, love not just in words and speech, but in truth and action. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ