Just as he is a shepherd and a lamb, so too we sheep become shepherds to each other as we grow up into his likeness.

Easter 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.... You know the rest!

There is no denying that sheep and shepherds play a huge part in the imagery of Scripture. This is natural given the times and places in which the Scriptures were composed — sheep and shepherds were as central to the economies of those times and places as retail sales are to ours. I suppose we can be thankful for that; otherwise we might be stuck with, “The Lord is my supervisor,” or “He maketh me to shop in the bargain basement.” I don’t think we would want to pray, “The Lord is our Walmart and we are his customers.” And when Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, I don’t think he was thinking about being as a sales clerk!

No, instead of mercantile imagery, we are blessed with a wealth of pastoral images, of sheep and shepherds; and most importantly of a shepherd who is also himself describe as a lamb — the Lamb of God. In fact, John mixes up all sorts of pastoral imagery in his gospel and his epistles, and this imagery is carried forward into the last book of our Bible, that is also attributed to John: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; he is the gate of the sheepfold through whom the sheep enter and leave in safety; he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock; and he is, at the end, the Lamb again, with the marks of slaughter upon him, the innocent by whose bloody death the guilty are acquitted and reconciled with God.

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Most of us, I’m willing to guess, have little experience of sheep beyond owning a wool sweater or two — so what are we to make of this flock of images? When we say that the Lord is our shepherd, and when our Lord says that about himself, what do we mean, and what is he getting at.

Well, what we mean is that we belong to him. When we pray the Psalm that says, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture,” or “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are reaffirming our relationship with God is one of dependence and trust. We belong to God, and if we are wise — or at least as wise as sheep can be, which isn’t much — we will follow our Good Shepherd and put our trust in him.

For that is what we mean when we accept Jesus as our Shepherd — we belong to him and we know that he cares for us. We know his voice, when he calls us each by name. We trust him and we know that he will not lead us astray; or if we do, as sheep will often do, wander off ourselves, we trust that he will seek us out and bring us back, even if it is only one percent of us who wander off and get into trouble — and don’t you wish that only one percent of us were ever in trouble at some point in our lives.

We also know that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold: our safe passage into the fold for the night, to be kept safely from the wolves and lions of this world; and out through that gate by day to go to those lush, green pastures, to recline beside the still, calm waters, or to be fed on the herbage that nourishes body and soul.

And ultimately, we know that he is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life to protect us. He doesn’t run away when he sees the wolf coming — even if it means he will die in the process of protecting the sheep from that ravenous danger. For this is no ordinary shepherd — this is one who not only will lay down his life for the sheep. He is one who is able to take it back up again — no one takes it from him, but he lays it down of his own accord, and he receives it back from God his heavenly Father.

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And this is where we leave off our woolgathering and reflecting on sheep and shepherds, and the penny drops and the light-bulb goes on, as we recall, after all, that we are not sheep, and Jesus is not a shepherd. We are human beings, made after God’s image and in God’s likeness, and Jesus is himself that perfect image, the only-begotten Son of God. And yes, even though we are not sheep and he is no shepherd except by way of a parable — still we are his and he is ours: we belong to him, and he did in fact lay down his life for us, and took it up again; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, but raised from the dead by the power of God. That is the truth, the truth that we affirm every week as we say those words of the Nicene Creed.

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And this truth impels us to do more than merely to believe, merely to say those words week after week, even more than to believe it and to share it. For we are called not merely to follow our shepherd, but to grow up into him — to become shepherds ourselves, shepherds to each other. John gets into some of that mercantile imagery, after all, when he challenges and chastises “anyone who has the world’s goods and yet sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help.” We are called to emulate the greatest love one human being can show for another,

to lay down our lives for each other, just as Jesus laid down his life for all of us — each and every one of us both a sheep and a shepherd, bearing one another’s burdens, as the Apostle Paul would also teach.

John teaches us that it is by these loving actions that we will know that we abide in God, and God in us. This is nothing other than the power of God, who is love, love made real, love come down from heaven, love shared among the sheep of God’s pasture — not sheep after all, but children of God, God present among us by the power of the love we share.

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The Apostles knew this power fresh from God. How many people had passed by that crippled man who sat at the Beautiful Gate — how many of the very members of the high-priestly family before whom Peter and John now stand, accused of doing a good work of healing — how many of them, Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander and all their kith and kin, had passed by that crippled man and never given him so much as the time of day. And yet, Peter and John with healing him. Peter and John told him they had no money to help him out — but what they had, they gave him, freely and without any conditions: they gave him the name of Jesus, and the power of that name healed him of his infirmity. No wonder the selfish priests are confounded by this act of generosity; they are hired hands, who had no real love for the sheep;

they were ready to sell out the Lamb of God to the Roman wolves so as to keep their precious peace.

Yet, here, even here as Peter and John stand before them, the grace of God is shown forth and even they — Annas and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all their relatives and colleagues — they are given yet one more chance — and it won’t be the last one! — another chance to repent and believe, as Peter, filled with the boldness of a sheep become a shepherd, confronts them and shames them with the Name of Jesus strong upon his lips.

This, my friends, is what happens when we follow a Good Shepherd, and grow up into his likeness, caring for each other with the sacrificial love that gives and gives and never counts the cost. This is the Paschal mystery, my friends, the mystery of Easter, that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in pardoning that we find pardon, that it is in dying that, behold, we live. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

Over My Dead Body!

The shepherd and the gate...

SJF • Easter 4a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Peter wrote, He 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. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

We continue our Easter exploration of the teaching of the apostle Peter this week as he takes up an image with which he had heard Jesus describe himself: the Good Shepherd. This is one of the most popular images of Jesus — literally: there are hundreds of stained glass windows and statues and paintings of Jesus portrayed as the Good Shepherd. I can’t even remember the last time I was in a church that didn’t have at least one image of the Good Shepherd. And we have one here at St. James — you may not see it very often because it is around the corner in the transept; but take a moment, perhaps later after worship, to come around the side and see our picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd in stained glass. The oldest known image of Jesus, in fact, is an image of Jesus painted on the walls of one of the ancient catacombs, showing him as a young man with a lamb over his shoulders, gently bearing it home — one of the oldest images.

We tend to think of the shepherd’s life in just this way: spending the lonely days and nights chasing after fluffy lambs, sitting on the hillside in a sunny afternoon as the sheep graze contentedly, playing on a pipe and drowsing as the bees buzz and hum around the flowers: just the kind of job where snoozing the day away seems just about right: a low-stress job!

What gets lost in this imagery, however, is the reality of just how hard and dangerous it is to be a shepherd. Not only are there thieves and bandits to contend with (as our Gospel text this morning reminds us) but also wolves and lions and bears and other wild beasts who would snatch up a young sheep for a tasty meal.

We sang David’s shepherd song today, in a musical version of that belovèd Twenty-third Psalm. You may recall that when King Saul told David that he was just a boy and no match for the Philistine giant Goliath, young David answered, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

So David knew just what was involved in being a shepherd. Above all he knew that it was no easy-peasy, lazy-hazy, laid-back way of life. It was hard; it was dangerous. If we look closely at David’s beloved Psalm 23, we find it filled with danger and strife. In fact, it is because of all the danger and strife that the comforting parts of the Psalm are there — for who needs to be comforted when he’s already comfortable? Look at the perils described in this Psalm: the valley of the shadow of death, the enemies before whom the table is set, the rod and staff which aren’t just for show, but for striking down the foe and giving strength to the weak, and even that wounded head anointed with oil.

So being a shepherd is no easy task; it rates high on the scale of hazardous work — something which Peter the fisherman would also have appreciated. For fishing is also not just sitting dozing by a stream with a can of worms at one’s side and the line tied around your toe to wake you up when there’s a nibble. Commercial fishing — for that is what Peter and James and John and Andrew were involved in — commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. There was a TV show about it, that they had to amend the filming of because two of the fishermen were killed in the course of doing the series. Fishing has always been one of the most dangerous jobs you could undertake — on the stormy sea of Galilee in Peter’s day or the stormy North Atlantic today. Peter knew perfectly well that a fisherman might lose his life when a storm swamped his boat and swept him overboard. He also knew that he might risk his life to catch fish, but no fisherman would lay down his life for the sake of the fish themselves! He wasn’t there to save them; he was there to catch them! But on the other hand, a shepherd might well be called upon to lay down his life for the sheep — to lose life and limb to protect them by fighting the thieves, the bandits, the lions or wolves or bears, or whoever might seek the life of that flock.

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Being a shepherd, then, is a risky business, a rough line of work. And our Gospel reading this morning shows us just how rough and risky with another surprising image. Note that in the second half of the gospel passage, Jesus doesn’t describe himself as a shepherd but as “I am the gate,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This is odd, isn’t it? If you think so, you aren’t the only one. We’re used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a shepherd, but not as the gate of the sheepfold. Years ago pastor George Adam Smith was on a tour of the holy land. This was quite an extensive tour, and it hit all the backwater spots not usually visited today. One afternoon he stopped at a shady oasis, rarely visited by outsiders. Off to one side was a perfect Near Eastern sheepfold, such as has existed for thousands of years: it’s a low enclosure about so high, square, with an opening on one side — but no gate. The sheep were all in the fold, resting in the heat of the afternoon, and there was an ancient Arab shepherd sitting outside by the opening. Smith called for the tour interpreter and said, “Ask him where the gate for the sheepfold is.” The interpreter asked the question, and the old shepherd looked up at the curious visitors, and then smiled a knowing smile — revealing that he had more wrinkles than teeth. He spoke a few words in the local dialect, and smiled again, as the interpreter translated. He said, “I am the gate for the sheep. When I have brought them in, I sit here, and watch that none goes out. At night I sleep in the doorway, so if a sheep tries to go out it must pass over me, and if a wolf tries to get in it must pass over my body. I am the gate.” And Pastor Smith learned a lesson he would long remember.

For Jesus is the gate of our sheepfold. He watches over us day and night, protecting us from harm and preventing us from wandering. He will not allow a thief or a bandit to get past him, nor a wolf or lion or bear. He will block their way, and say, “You’ll get to my sheep over my dead body!” And that’s not a threat, it’s a promise!

For Jesus did lay down his life for us — for you, for me. He bore our sins, as Peter said, bore them in his body on the cross, so that, we, free from sins, might live for righteousness. We were gone astray like silly sheep, wandering off in search of greener pastures but finding ourselves lost in the middle of the desert — and he found us laid us on his shoulder and gently brought us home. He put us in our sheepfold, and laid himself down in the opening, to keep us safe within, and to keep out the thieves and the bandits. And when the wild beasts of sin and fear and despair came stalking by that gate, he set himself between them and us. His rod and his staff took the form of a cross on that hill outside the city gates, a rod and a staff set crosswise, upon which he suffered and died in the presence of his enemies, upon which he entered into the valley of the shadow of death — for us, for us, my beloved brothers and sisters. He set that table before us on the night before he died, in the presence of his enemies, and ours — which for us was our own sin and waywardness.

And not for us alone. For there where he was lifted high upon the cross he could call the whole world to himself — he, the gate of the sheepfold. He, the way out of the valley of the shadow and into the pasture of the beautiful sunlight of God; He, the way out of the desert of sin and into the fields beside which the waters gently flow, the still waters whose still surface is as clear as glass. He is the gate of the sheep, of all the sheep who hear his voice and come to him, raised high upon the cross in all of his woundedness so that all might see him from afar, and come, and be healed by his wounds, and then enter the sheepfold. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly — and he gave his life for us, for our sake, placing himself between us and our sins.

We enter into life because of his death and resurrection; they stand between us and the thieving banditry of sin, the wild beasts of fear and wrong, and the foolishness of our own wandering. He is the gate, he is the shepherd.

So let us, beloved, this Eastertide and always, give thanks for our Good Shepherd, who calls us to him, each by name, and leads us in and out of pasture; who laid down his life for us; who rose again from the dead and who now lives in us, and we in him, the shepherd and guardian of our souls, forever and ever.

At Your Service

SJF• Easter 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”

It has long been a tradition to take up the account of the early church in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles during worship in Easter Season. As I noted last week, this can be a bit confusing as it gets events into a disordered sequence — we won’t celebrate Pentecost for a few weeks yet, and most of what we are hearing from Acts takes place after the original descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, seven weeks — a week of weeks — after the first Easter. I noted last week that during this time we are a bit like Doctor Who, bouncing back and forth in time, as the story is told out of order.

But that being said, isn’t it a wonderful story! In today’s short reading we hear of the short period of peace the early church enjoyed before persecution from without and dissension from within began to trouble it. The preaching of the gospel has been such a success, and the church has grown so much! People are in awe, and the members of the church devote themselves to prayer, fellowship and praising God. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to seek to be added to that number? It is almost as if the church is running on auto-pilot, without any need for earthly leadership — just one big happy and growing family! Of course, they are happy in this way because at that early point they have put their whole trust in the one whom they know to be their true leader, the one who suffered for them, bearing their sins upon the cross, and healing them by his wounds. They have put their whole trust in the one who, when they were going astray like sheep, gathered them together as the shepherd and guardian of their souls.

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This Sunday is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The theme is referred to in our opening Collect, and in the selection of the 23rd Psalm. And it is true that later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But we miss Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel if we anticipate those verses.

In today’s gospel Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, but — twice no less — the “gate for the sheep.” Perhaps we are inclined to let our minds slip over this image because it is less evocative than that of a young shepherd carrying a lost sheep home on his shoulder, as in the hymn based on David’s most famous Psalm, which we’ll be singing later: “and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” But let us stick with Jesus’ image of the gate, looking at what the text actually says, and listening to Jesus as he teaches us — lest we too fall into the same trap of misunderstanding as his original hearers, who, as it says in today’s gospel, “did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Very well, then. Let’s try to do better. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and “I am the gate.” This means that he is the one through whom the sheep enter and leave, through whom they pass in to safety and out to pasture. As he also says (and we’ll hear this next week), I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. We are saved through him. He is the way; he is the gate. So if Jesus is the gate, who then, in this imagery, is the shepherd?

Let us again “look at the text” as my New Testament professor always used to say. What is written there? The shepherd is the one for whom the gate is opened, for the shepherd passes in and out with the sheep. The shepherd is not like the thief or bandit who doesn’t go through the gate (that is, through Jesus) but climbs in by another way. And the shepherd leads the sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep hear the shepherd, and, knowing and recognizing that voice, they follow the shepherd in and out of the gate, that is Jesus.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is showing that he chooses to share the work of the church — which is salvation — with other workers: with these shepherds. Jesus delegates part of his work to the apostles and they to their successors, the bishops, who also pass along the work to the priests and deacons who serve in the parishes, and who — in case you haven’t noticed my doing this — also seek to engage all of the members of the church — that’s you! — in taking up their share of the work. These are the shepherds for whom Jesus the gate is opened, who call the sheep by name, and who lead the sheep alternately to safety and to pasture, in and out, through the gate, which is Christ himself, whose body is the church.

As to the thieves and bandits, well, next week we will see Stephen — among the first of the deacons — dealing with some of the leaders who instead of bringing their people to salvation are getting in the way of the message, impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus too dealt with such leaders, to whom he said, Woe to you, who not entering yourselves have hindered others from entering!(Lk 11:52) And surely over the last two decades we’ve heard the sad and shocking tales of priestly misconduct, of those who abuse the little ones committed to their charge, and of bishops who as senior pastors fail to keep watch, and instead simply shuffle the crooked deck in a kind of ecclesiastical Three Card Monte. All I can say is, there will be a reckoning for those who take up the role of shepherd only to molest or harm the sheep.

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But let us, dear sisters and brothers, look on the bright side of Jesus’ challenge to us, the tremendous honor that our Lord does us by asking for our help, by opening himself up to us to pass in and out, by allowing us entry by the gate, to take up these tasks of ministry, to allow us to go out through the gate, out into the world to serve the needs of the world, and committing to us all of these tasks of leadership and care. It isn’t just the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons. The church has its lay members too, working in so many ways, who take up each their own tasks of teaching the young, taking roles in worship, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, those who maintain the physical facility of this building and other buildings, and those who undertake the work of hospitality in the heat of the kitchen — and that’s hard work, believe me. And also, and perhaps most importantly, all of you, as you go out into the world, a challenging world that is hungry not just for earthly bread, but for the word of God. All of these tasks are important, all of them require time and talent and treasure. And the church needs all of them, as they are delegated to each one by the power of the Holy Spirit working in each one to build up the church.

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There is an old story told of a steamboat helmsman and an engineer who got into an argument as to who was more important: the one who steered the boat or the one who kept the engine running so the boat could go. So they decided to trade places to see just how hard the other worked, and how important the other job was. After a couple of hours of running along fine, the ship came to stop, and the engineer, now up on the bridge, got on the horn to the helmsman, down in the boiler room. “The ship has stopped! Are you giving us full steam?” The helmsman responded from below, “The engines overheated and stopped running! I’m coming up.”

The engineer on the bridge smiled to himself, figuring he’d won the debate as to who was most important. But as the helmsman came to the bridge and looked out at the river, he smiled ruefully and said to the engineer, “Well, I guess I know now why the boat has stopped. You’ve run us aground on a sand-bar!”

The church is too important, my friends, to run aground over arguments about whose ministry is more important. The church is too important to allow a few bad priests to destroy people’s confidence in the rest who are good. The church is too important to be injured by bishops more interested in the church’s reputation than in the good of the flock. But the church itself — Christ’s body — is not too important for God in Christ to have committed its care into our less than perfect hands — all of us. He has chosen us to go in and out through him. Mark and Catherine our bishops, I as your priest, Tony and Eliza as our former deacons, and Mark Collins and Sahra Harding as seminarians here (and now priests themselves serving in other parishes) and each and all of you as readers and teachers and ushers and cooks and cleaners and welcomers and visitors and hosts and musicians and altar serves, and most importantly of all as members of this church going out into the world and spreading the news — each of us has been given a job and a ministry by God, by our Lord, the gate for the sheep, and all of us have been empowered to carry it out by the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can — through the power and grace of God, help move the church into something resembling those early days when they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Wouldn’t that be awesome! The church being the church — coming and going through the gate and all working ship-shape and in Bristol fashion.

So let us not lose heart, let us not lose faith. When the job seems daunting or beyond our capacity, let us always remember that the Lord who is Way, the Truth and Life will provide other servants through the gate, who will join in the work of building up God’s kingdom, day by day adding to the number being saved, being brought through the gate of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Hearing the Shepherd's Voice

SJF • Easter 4c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.+

Last week our Scripture readings told us about people who went on to become leaders in the church getting off to an awfully inauspicious start. Peter and Paul, each in his own way, didn’t perceive Jesus when he was plainly evident to others. They had to be shaken up by God to open their eyes and see what was right in front of them. Paul, as you remember, missed God’s message because he was so full of himself, his head so full of his own knowledge, his own understanding — which was really misunderstanding — that he couldn’t hear or see anything new. Peter, on the other hand, seems to have gotten the message but didn’t know what to do with it — instead of spreading the Gospel he decided to go fishing.

Fortunately God knocked Paul from his high horse, and set Peter on the right road. Look at today’s reading from the Book of Acts, and remember that Paul is including himself among the people of Jerusalem and their leaders — as he had been at that time — who “did not... understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath.” Remember, as we heard last week, Paul spent his youth persecuting the church, hunting down Christians and delivering them up for trial and punishment. He started hi career as the coat-check boy for those who stoned Saint Stephen to death! Yet he’d heard the Scriptures week by week in the synagogue, heard, without understanding, the God about whom those words gave such powerful testimony.

Paul finally understood the words so often heard, and came to know the meaning behind them, and the One of whom they spoke. And Peter, too, became a changed man once Jesus got him to take his mind off his fishing tackle, and sent him out to feed the sheep, and to spread the Gospel.

Powerful things can happen to you when you let God into your life. Saint John the Divine was given a glimpse, a revelation, and he shared us with us: a glimpse, a revelation, of the ultimate destiny of those who hear and follow their heavenly shepherd, people from all over the world who have heard the saving word in many tongues, and who in John’s vision of heaven stand before the throne with palm branches, praising the Lord and the Lamb, who is their protector and their God. Secure in the place where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst — not even any sunburn — they rejoice forever because they have heard and followed him who is the Savior of the world.

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But what about those who refuse to hear, who don’t let God into their lives? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s a chilly winter day, at the feast of Dedication; which we might know better as Hanukkah. The people come to Jesus with the challenge, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus returns their challenge with a challenge equally pointed. “I have told you.” If ever there were a time for that appropriate, eloquent monosyllable, this would be it. Duh!

What more could they want? By this time in John’s Gospel John the Baptist has given his testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God, Jesus has changed water to wine at Cana of Galilee, he has cast the moneychangers from the court of the Gentiles in that very temple; He has promised that if the temple were torn down he would rebuild it in three days; he has fed a multitude on the mountain, with five barley loaves and two fish; he has healed the sick — a little boy in Capernaum, and right in Jerusalem a paralyzed man, and even more astoundingly a man born blind; and — especially in John’s Gospel— he’s taught and he’s taught and he’s taught. Yet after all of this, the people still say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Verily, verily, I say unto you, Duh! As Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.”

It reminds me of the young man in the movie who is tempted to go further with his new girlfriend than he knows he should, and who kneels in prayer in his bedroom. “Give me a sign, God,” he says. There’s a crash of thunder, the lights flash, the walls shake and pictures fall from their hooks and books from their shelves; and still looking up to heaven, the boy says, “Any sign!”

Just what does it take to hear the voice of God when God is speaking slowly and clearly in words of one syllable?

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Well, Jesus gives us the answer, and in words of one syllable: My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. (O.K., follow has two syllables.) But the message is clear.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The blessed ones, the ones who belong to the flock of Christ, hear the voice of their divine shepherd. Notice that doesn’t mean that they necessarily understand the shepherd, any more than ordinary earthly sheep understand their earthly human shepherd. They may not even know what a shepherd is, but — and this is the most important thing, as Jesus goes on to say — the shepherd knows them.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to understand God’s message to us. If that were the case I’d stop preaching right now! But we need to hear God first, before we try to understand, and trust that God knows who he is talking to! God does not dial wrong numbers!

People do, of course, and it’s a good example of how preconceptions — being full of yourself instead of being open to others, as was Saint Paul’s problem — can prevent you from hearing what is being said to you. Once I was working in the church office, and the phone rang. As always, I answered, “Good afternoon, St. James Church.” The person at the other end said, “Is this the Recreation Center?”

Now, if I’d really been swift I could have said something like, “Yes, we offer re-creation every Sunday morning at 11 a.m.” As it was, I just said, “No; this is St. James Church. The Rec Center is next door.” Of course, I’d said that the first time, but the person calling simply couldn’t believe they’d dialed the wrong number. Isn’t if funny how people won’t believe that you aren’t the person they wanted: I’m sure I’m not the only one here who has had to repeat several times that no, Juanita doesn’t live here. Well, in this case, the caller wanted the Recreation Center, they expected the Recreation Center, so when I said, “Good afternoon, St. James Church” they didn’t even hear the words.

But God’s sheep do hear the voice of their heavenly shepherd; and that is how our salvation begins. It is enough for us to begin by hearing, hearing without preconceptions, and in the true knowledge and trust that the one who calls us knows exactly who we are, knows us each by name. God don’t dial no wrong numbers! Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them.” And so we begin by hearing, and being known.

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And then, we follow. Yes, that’s the third essential two-syllable part of this morning’s word to us. The shepherd knows his sheep and calls his sheep, not for casual conversation, but for a high purpose: that they might follow him to the springs of the water of life, where every tear is wiped from their eyes, where they find shelter from the sun’s scorching heat, where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst. He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of his hand. What is his is his for ever.

This is what it means, beloved, to be counted among the flock of the great shepherd of the sheep. It is nothing less than life eternal. Thank God that we have heard the voice of the one who calls us; thank God that he knows us and has chosen us. And thank God that we have set our feet upon the path to follow him. Amidst the distractions and the shadows of this life, amidst the distractions and noise and busyness of our lives, may we always be ready to hear the voice of the one who knows us, and to follow him when he calls, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+