By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known also as Good Shepherd Sunday. Throughout the readings and hymns and prayers for this occasion, we encounter, time and again, Jesus as our shepherd and ourselves as the sheep of his flock.
The collect for today sums it up well:
“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people:
Grant that when we hear his voice
we may know him who calls us each by name
and follow where he leads.”[From the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Corporation, 1979), p. 225.]
Christ our Shepherd speaks to us. He does not only speak, but calls each of us our name (say the first names of some people present). Our response is to hear him, to recognize his voice, and to follow where he leads.
All this depends on the Shepherd who speaks. Christ is no silent shepherd. He calls out to each of us and he calls each sheep of his flock in a distinct and personal way. He calls us each by name–by what Herbert O’Driscoll describes as “the most powerful of all sounds in our ears–our own name.” [Herbert O’Driscoll, Prayers for the Breaking of Bread (Cowley Publications, 1991), pp. 81-82.]
Jesus does not call us in some general, abstract, impersonal way: “Hey, you!” Rather, he knows who we are, what we need, and the person we are coming to be.
The sacredness of who we are is safe with Jesus because it is a reflection of his own sacredness. At times we may want to be someone other than ourselves, we may live vast tracts of our life according to this mistake, but Jesus only wants us to be the person we are made to be, the one he redeemed us to be, and so he calls us each by name.
What a great gift it is that he knows us by name and calls out to each of us as though we were the only sheep in all the world. Already he knows us, and invites us to know him, to know him and follow him. But a further step is necessary. It is necessary that we listen. Even the voice of Jesus goes unheard unless something within us makes the choice to listen.
We may regard listening as passive. Opening our ears to hear is not so obvious as opening our mouth to speak! But true listening requires great attention and energy. Ask any counselor, psychiatrist, or pastor who has just spent hours listening to troubled people, and you will find that listening demands a great deal.
Or recall some time–I hope you have had the experience–when you felt truly heard The person listening may have been spouse, parent, teacher, friend, or someone whose profession requires a willingness to listen. To be truly heardby another person is something rich and all too rare, a great consolation,. It requires much of the listener and gives something real to the person who is heard.
So the art of listening is not easy. Yet it is the foundation of discipleship. Like all true listening, listening to the Shepherd comes at a cost. But while listening to other people may sometimes drain us–it is our gift to them–listening to the Shepherd always leads to our enrichment. The Shepherd has nothing to gain, while we have everything to gain, yet still this listening is not easy.
Why is it so hard to listen to the Shepherd’s voice? Because true listening leaves us open to be touched and changed by the truth we hear. That’s risky business! So often the truth, if we hear it, overturns our prejudices, challenges our self-image, shakes up our view of the world. Most of us are at least a little uneasy about having our boat rocked.
Listening is also hard because much of our society is arranged to keep us from hearing deep truths. Many people are paid to make noise so that we do not hear the true music. We may even become so accustomed to noise that we forget there is a true music.
Something else that makes listening hard is that what we hear is usually a blend: the voice of the Shepherd mixed with lesser voices. St. Paul puts it this way: the treasure comes to us in clay pots. [2 Corinthians 4:7.] We need to distinguish the one from the other, and not confuse the pot with the treasure.
Yes, listening is hard. It takes practice. But the saving grace is the Shepherd never ceases to call us. There is no shortage of messages that come from him, and each one we are to hear is addressed to us by name. There is no situation where he does not speak.
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What we do in Christian worship is to listen to the Shepherd’s voice. We hear that voice, or at least have opportunity to hear it, through scripture and sermon and sacrament, in moments of silence and through the sound of music, through the words of familiar prayers and fresh prayers.
We hear that voice, or at least can hear it, when we worship together, but something more is involved: we are here to be trained. Trained to recognize the Shepherd’s voice when he speaks during the other hours of the week, and in situations where we may be surprised to find him.
There are preachers of the Word, mouthpieces for the Shepherd in the church, and they know they bear that commission. But there are as well preachers of the Word, mouthpieces for the Shepherd out in the world, though many of them have no clue that they discharge this function. But if we truly listen, the truth sounds forth always, no matter how grievously we human beings fall short. Every word, every action, no matter how mundane, or even immoral, points beyond itself to the truth of God. The Shepherd is never absent from any place.
Thus in the Passion story, we have Caiaphas the high priest say to those around him that it’s expedient for one man to die for the people. [John 11:50.] What he intends is a callous political calculation. He prefers to see Jesus nailed to a cross than have the upsetting career of this one man bring down the wrath of the Romans on the entire nation.
Yet there is a larger sense in which what Caiaphas says is the truth of the Gospel. It is expedient for one man to die for the people, because God so loved the world that he gave this man–his only-begotten Son–that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. [John 3:16.] So in the cynicism of Caiaphas we hear another message, one he never intended. Through his words we recognize a second and opposite voice, the voice of the Shepherd calling us to life.
The same process can happen to us this week. We find ourselves in some situation of sorrow or loss or crime or despair, and the air itself appears soiled by the words people say. But through it all the Shepherd speaks, calling us and those with us out of death and into life.
The Shepherd has not given up on anyone; we must not give up either. The ministry of each of us appears in those dark and unhappy places when we hear the Shepherd speak some word of life to those sick with death, and we act upon that word. We can trust the Shepherd to speak. But we must be good listeners.
Another kind of situation may bring an even greater challenge. We find ourselves in some sweet place, an experience of rest or pleasure or accomplishment. For a moment the world appears to gleam. Do we listen then?
The Shepherd speaks in bright moments as well. He speaks some word of blessing in these transient joys and successes; he wants to whet our appetite for the true blessings, the ones that never grow old. If for a moment your life does seem like a beer commercial: bright, jovial, robust, then, if you listen, he may tell you with a laugh: “Friend, you say life doesn’t get any better than this! But let me assure you it does. It does.”
Discipleship requires that we listen to the Shepherd who addresses us in every situation. But it does not stop there. Our discipleship also requires that we follow where he leads us. We do not sit down where we are. We do not wander off. We follow him because we trust him.
As we follow the Shepherd, there’s much that happens. The path is not prosaic. In a line from the hymn “He is the Way,” W. H. Auden encapsulates where our obedience to Christ will take us: “Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.” [Hymn 463/464 in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).]
In this course of this obedience, we become more proficient in hearing the Shepherd. Discipleship helps to open our ears. Listening makes it possible for us to follow. And following makes it possible for us to listen.
Do you find it hard to listen the way a disciple should, even though Christ the Shepherd addresses you in every circumstance of life? We all have this problem! But when we take our next few steps in obedience to his call, then we find ourselves better able to hear him. Listening makes obedience possible, but when we obey, our ears are opened up yet again to hear that voice which is ever ancient and ever new.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).