Would you not agree that so much of how our lives end up comes down to the decisions we make along the way? And not merely the big decisions, either: Debra Brazzel, a former associate Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, writes that whereas “there are pivotal moments when we make choices which have significant consequences for our future” (the decision to go to college after graduation; the decision to get married or to have children; the decision to make a career change, and so on), there are also “the casual decisions that we make which over time give expression to our values and shape the character of our lives.”
These are the common, everyday choices that each one of us face: “what kind of relationships we have; how we spend our time; what kind of work we do; how we spend our money; …how we get involved in our community; how we treat other people; what we keep and what we give away; how we worship; how we play.” Each day, “we are faced with choices about how we will live. And taken together, these decisions reflect who we are and the values we hold most dear.”
Certainly it is part of the human condition and experience to make choices. The question is, how do we discern what’s the good and right choice to make? When we’re children, it’s relatively easy – our parents, teachers and other assorted adults of our lives make those choices for us, and even on those occasions when we independently choose a course fraught with danger, they are there as best they can be to protect us and make the necessary mid-course corrections! Somewhere along the line, however, we grow up and discover, for better or for worse, that the choices we make are ultimately our own, and of course, that’s where the difficulty begins!
I remember when I was around 13 or 14 and asking my parents for permission to do something or other – I don’t remember exactly what – but I do remember my mother saying, “Well, you’re 13 now. What do you think you should do?” On the one hand, I immediately had this great feeling of power, because I was 13 and could make my own decisions (!); but honestly, there was also this abject terror, because I was 13 and could make my own decisions! And like I say, I don’t remember what it was I had to decide – but I do remember that at the very moment it became my decision to make, I agonized over it! What will my parents think of what I decide? How will the kids in my class react? Is this “cool,” or one of those things that is supposed to be “cool” to but really isn’t?
You see, when you have to decide – when you have to choose – that’s when the trouble starts, because all the while we’re trying to find the where-with-all to make good choices, there are voices from every direction of our lives, all clamoring for our attention; each one calling us to choose them and to follow. That’s a heady thing when you’re 13, and if we’re being honest about it, getting older often doesn’t make it any less overwhelming!
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus speaks of thieves and bandits that will sneak inside the sheepfold and attempt to call out the sheep in order to “steal and kill and destroy” them. But Jesus is not really talking about the risks of shepherding; rather about the risk to our lives that arise from the fake and hollow voices that seek to call us away from good and right pathways. Jesus does say that the sheep won’t listen because they know the voice of their gatekeeper, who is Jesus himself, who came “so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of,” as The Message translates it. Which is a beautiful assurance – and yet, you and I know that the sheep rustlers of this world are many, and oftentimes it becomes very difficult for us to know which voice is that of God in Christ and which is not.
Truth be told, some of those competing voices are enticing indeed – they emanate from our need for connectedness; for popularity; for security in life and living; the desire for wealth and power; sometimes it comes out of the warped view our modern culture has of what makes someone attractive or desirable or of value. And then there are the voices that seem to speak to the pain and anger that’s inside us; all those feelings of isolation and injustice and rejection that tend to pull us away from the safety of the sheepfold.
Granted, this is an extreme example; but think about this: day after day we hear news of more violent acts and hate crimes – and much of it happening closer and closer to home. And I don’t know about you, but when watch the news and see the sullen faces of these people who have been arrested for these crimes, I wonder: what voices were they hearing? Not to excuse it at all, or to get overly simplistic about some very complex issues, one has to ask if for all the noise of their own pain and anguish if these people could recognize or even hear the voice of the Shepherd?
My point is that as Jesus says just as there will always be those thieves and bandits out to enter the sheepfold and destroy the sheep, so there is that – people, attitudes, emotion, sin – which can do much to pull us away from life and faith and apart from our Good Shepherd: and that can destroy us as well; perhaps not in an immediate or catastrophic way, but little by little, insidiously eating away at who we are and what we believe, until eventually there’s nothing left.
That’s why it’s crucial that you and I truly be listening – intently, and very carefully – for that one true voice that we know, the voice that can truly inform our lives and living; the voice of this “good” shepherd who would “make [us] lie down in green pastures” and “lead [us] beside still waters,” so that even though we might find ourselves walking through the darkest valleys, we will fear no evil. That’s the voice we need to be listening for – because ultimately, friends, the choices we make in this life, for good or for ill, do depend a great deal on who and what we listen to.
So the question becomes, then, how do we discern the one true voice of the shepherd?
Admittedly, it’s no easy task! In fact, in one of my favorite books, “Dangerous Wonder: the Adventure of Childlike Faith,” the late Mike Yaconnelli wrote that “sadly, by the time we are adults, most of us have lost our God hearing. By the time we are adults, we have decided that listening to God is less important than knowing about God. By the time we are grown, we have jobs and children; the noise of our lives has increased to such a level that we couldn’t possibly hear God” because, he says, “God rarely shouts – he whispers.”
In other words, if we’re waiting for some booming voice from out of heaven in the hope that it will drown out all the noise and confusion around us, maybe we’re going at this the wrong way! Perhaps it’s not that God isn’t loud enough for us to hear; rather it’s that we’ve become too loud to listen to God! Maybe this all comes down to getting out of the noise of our lives long enough that we might actually be able to pay attention to the presence of God and hear his voice.
That’s a good part of what this morning’s gospel is all about.
I’ll be honest with you: just like the disciples to whom Jesus was originally speaking, there are times I find this passage from the 10th chapter of John actually kind of, well, confusing! It’s all the changes in identity – first Jesus speaks of being the good shepherd who comes in through the gate; and then he’s the gatekeeper; and then a few verses later he says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” And this is all before he talks about being the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Quite honestly, it all seems like it’s in code!
But what I’ve found very helpful is something I read years ago about this particular passage – that this is like seeing Jesus through a kaleidoscope: “first we see this, then with half a turn, the pieces rearrange and we see something new” about Christ. It’s all the same picture, just from different points of view – but what connects all these different images together is how Jesus speaks of it to his disciples and us.
So first we have this image of Christ, as the shepherd of the sheep, who comes to the sheepfold not by devious means, but straight through the entrance – that’s how Christ comes to our lives: directly, straight-forwardly, openly and honestly, without subterfuge or slick, empty promises. Jesus simply looks us square in the eye and says to us directly, “Follow me.”
And then there’s Jesus the gatekeeper who leads the sheep in and out; who knows each one by name, and who is well known by the sheep. In other words, Christ knows us – and moreover, we know Christ, because there is an air of familiarity about what he says. And before long, in the cadence of Jesus’ own words, in the evidence of his work, and the power of his promises and teachings, we begin to sense the truth of it. As Thomas Long of Emory University has written, it’s Jesus’ own voice that “distinguishes true sacrifice from sham and thievery in the name of God.”
And then we have Jesus as the gate, quite literally the one who provides and strengthens the door to the sheepfold, so that anything that gets through, in or out, has to go through him first. And when Jesus is the gate, then you can count on the fact that only good things are going to get through: everything that flows in and out of our lives is going to be regulated by the standard of God’s own purposes.
This does not mean the tragedies of the world will not touch us, but it does mean that in whatever comes, we are redeemed, we are freed from fear and alienation, and we are nourished with strength, courage and joy for living.
We’re given life – because Jesus came not as the sheep rustlers do, but so “that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly.” After all, he proclaims in the next verse, “I am the good shepherd.”
Yes, it might well be hard to discern at times, but to hear the one true voice of the shepherd starts with the right kind of listening, the kind of “God Hearing” that happens in the heart. And I pray today that each of us will be diligent in the effort – but, as Barbara Brown Taylor observes in her book The Preaching Life, “if sometimes you have trouble hearing the voices of your shepherd, be patient with yourself – because some days it sounds like a whistle and some days like a cluck; some days it sounds like a love song and [others] like a curse. It is not a voice that always speaks in words, much less complete sentences, but it can usually be heard sometime between your getting up and your lying down each day, leading you beside the still waters, restoring your soul.”
Speak to us, Good Shepherd. And may our thanks for your voice be unto God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry