The Shepherd’s Voice

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are here.

What do you know about sheep?
Sheep are smart, kind, curious and are excellent mothers and friends. They form deep and lasting bonds with each other, they stick up for one another in fights, in their pastures they congregate with their favorite friends, they don’t compete to be the alpha in the group, and they grieve when they lose a friend. They can remember approximately 50 individuals (sheep and human!) for years at a time. They prefer being in a group and express stress and anxiety when alone. Their unique vision allows them to see almost 360 degrees peripherally and their sense of smell allows them to smell a predator long before they can see it. Sheep follow not because they are passive clones but because they know the benefit of mutual support and, yes, they know the voice and face of their shepherd!

In our day and culture, if someone calls us ‘sheep’ we tend to take great offense. We somehow got it in our heads that sheep are dumb and will mindlessly follow anyone. Not true!

When Jesus uses sheep and shepherd metaphors he isn’t looking to insult anyone or to imply that we are to give up thinking to follow him. Some who heard his words in first century Palestine would have understood these metaphors to speak of deep relational bonds and mutual care. Jesus is describing the kind of relationship God desires to have with all of us. He is describing the kind of relationship disciples have with their rabbi.

Discipleship is more than learning, it is whole life formation. Disciples in Jesus’ day didn’t just study books or scripture with their rabbi, they lived with them to shape their life like their rabbi. We can’t claim to be a disciple if we aren’t open to the Way of Jesus shaping our whole life – work, play, family, friends, finances, politics, all of it.

Whether or not we claim to be disciples of Jesus, we are disciples of something. What we spend our time doing shapes us. Who we listen to shapes us. This is what discipleship is – the shaping of our core identity and whatever that core identity is will bear fruit in the way we live, all that we think and do.

So how do we know if we are disciples of Jesus or our culture? How do we know The Shepherd’s voice? We do have to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing, after all (see Matthew 5:17). The idea of the big bad wolf pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma wasn’t invented by the Grimm Brothers.

If who or what we are following, who or what we are letting disciple us, regularly tells us what we are to be afraid of or who we are to hate or exclude, rest assured this person or group isn’t following Jesus, even if they say they are.

If who our what we are following says the fruit of God’s love for us will be big houses, fancy cars, and lots of money, they aren’t following Jesus.

If who or what we are following says we must defend god, their god is pretty small and not the god of scripture. When we assume a defensive posture we are looking to keep others out, not invite them in. If the god they profess hates all the same people they do, or if their god has told them they are to dominate other groups of people, rest assured they’ve created a god in their own image.

To know our shepherd, we must spend time getting to know our shepherd. We can’t just pop in once a week and call it enough. Following Jesus is a lifelong journey of learning and being transformed to be more like Jesus every day and it doesn’t matter at what age we step into this journey, only that we do. It takes intentionality and commitment and community. And, here’s a real kicker – it isn’t always easy. Sometimes folks won’t like us because of how following Jesus shapes us. There were a lot of powerful folks who didn’t like what Jesus said and did and yet he was never a jerk and he forgave them even as he was dying by their hand.

But the good news is that the life Jesus offers us – life free from the fear and stress and anxiety of having to prove ourselves worthy to anyone, free from the caustic internal effects of our own hate and anger, is a life of grace and forgiveness in which we are free to love and be loved, it is the life in which we hear God say “you are my beloved”. The disciple life is living in the trust that God is with us always, shaping us into who we are created to be – kingdom people participating with God in the goodness of this world.

Want to know something else about sheep? Sheep only try to be sheep. Humans are the only part of God’s creation that try to be something we aren’t created to be. As Eugene Peterson says, “we make the shift from tending the garden to trying to run it.” We try to be super-human, we think we need to compete for God’s favor. Or, on the flip side, we deny the goodness in us with the thought that the world doesn’t need our gifts or talents or us. But God created us to flourish and thrive in companionship with each other not in competition. God created us to be complete with each other, everyone necessary and needed in the bringing about of God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven.

Now, I’m not saying to ignore the evils of this world. We cannot follow Jesus and pretend evil isn’t there. But, as we listen to Jesus, take his words to heart, take them seriously, we come to know that love as God loves is the most powerful force in this world.
As we follow Jesus we learn that hate does not conquer hate, anger does not defeat anger, and revenge and retaliation do not bring about justice.
Only love can reshape our hate into compassion – the proverbial turning of swords into plowshares. Only love can soothe the anger in us. Only love can save us from the destruction of revenge and teach us to seek justice for all.

Jesus wants us to learn to know and recognize his voice so that we are protected from the predators of this world who want to lead us through fear and anger. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and to pray for our enemy so that we begin to see our perceived enemies as our neighbors. He tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves so that we don’t treat ourselves as the enemy. God wants to free us from our tendency to see anyone as an enemy and the grave harm that does to our souls.

Jesus says that others will know we are his disciples by the way we love and he showed us in flesh and blood what Love looks like. We let the love shine through by breaking bread together, walking through life together, worshipping and praying together, sticking with each other in the challenging times, celebrating in the joyful times, and sharing what we have so that everyone has what they need.

Jesus invites us to follow him in the Way of Love. Love always seeks good for another. Love as Jesus loves meets others where they are and says ‘let’s work at being who God created us to be together.’ This is the life we are created for, the life in which we truly flourish as the people of God’s Kingdom. Learn to be like sheep: to know the voice of our Shepherd and follow him. Amen.

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