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Listening Sheep

17 Apr

sheep(a sermon for April 17, 2016, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30)

Last week, as you’ll recall, we told a story about an ill-fated pet duck named Harriet; and today as the sermon title suggests, we’ll be talking a fair amount about sheep. But first; I want to tell you a story about a barking… pig!

That’s right; a barking pig!  The story comes from Robert Fulghum’s wonderful book of essays entitled, “Uh-Oh,” about a kindergarten stage production of “Cinderella.” It seems that when the teacher in charge was handing out parts to all the children in the class, at the end there was this one little boy whose name was Norman.  And when the teacher asked Norman what part he wanted, he answered, “the pig.” To which the teacher replied, “But there’s no pig in this story!”  But in that way that only little kids can be, Norman was steadfast: “There is now!” he said. And so there was.

Actually, it turned out to be a pretty successful bit of casting: Norman, all dressed up as a pig, walked on-stage with Cinderella; making no sound at all, but sat on his haunches and observed what was going on with great earnestness, sincerity and even gravity.  But then, come the climax of the play – that moment with the prince places the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot and everyone lives happily ever after – Norman the pig went wild with joy, dancing on his hind legs and breaking his silence by barking!  Well, as you might imagine that was a bit much for the teacher/director, and so she pulled Norman aside to explain that even if there were a pig in the story of Cinderella, pigs don’t bark!  But Norman insisted: “This one does,” he said. And so it did!

And at the curtain call, guess who received the standing ovation?  That’s right, it was Norman the barking pig!  This, writes Fulghum, was the real “rags to riches” story: not that of Cinderella, the one who passively waited for fairy godmothers and handsome princes to rescue her from drudgery, but rather of Norman the barking pig, this one who actively followed and truly listened to what was going on; and who heard the good news and responded with utter and all-encompassing joy!

I wonder if sometimes in our own walk of Christian discipleship you and I tend to be a little more like Cinderella and a whole lot less like Norman!  So often, it seems, we treat our relationship with God and the life of faith in a way that’s actually very passive: essentially, we wait; we wait to see what God might do for us, rather than investing ourselves in a living faith; we proceed on the assumption that all you and I really have to do is stand idly by and wait to be led!

I suppose that in one sense it does kind of fit our whole idea of faith: after all, weren’t we all just assured a little while ago that “the LORD is [our] shepherd” who leads us beside still waters and will be with us “even though [we] walk through the darkest valley?”  Truly, of the many images that scripture offers us to help us understand our relationship with the Almighty God, this one – that of our being the sheep of God’s pasture with the Lord as our Shepherd – is the one that seems to offer up the most comfort and strength; it’s one of our most powerful reminders of God’s constant care and sustaining love from life to light to life!

So yes… it’s good to be the sheep!  And yet…

For us, sometimes, it can be a little troubling as well.  More than once over the years after having preached on one of these “sheep centric” passages of scripture, someone has come up to me after worship to complain that they really would prefer not to be thought of as sheep!  After all, they say, sheep aren’t incredibly bright animals; they’re pretty skittish, that is, very shy in nature and easily frightened; moreover, they have a tendency to be incredibly stubborn, and if one sheep does something foolish or life-threatening, the chances are very good that the rest of the flock will follow right on behind. The truth about sheep is that they will rarely do anything without having been led to do it!

Maybe you remember a classic “Far Side” cartoon from many years ago that pictures a flock of sheep gathered at some kind of reception, all of them standing there with drinks in their hands.  There’s a buffet table off to one side, balloons hanging up on the other; but the sheep are just standing around looking socially inept, not knowing what to do or what to say. But there’s also a dog entering the door, giving a hearty wave; and in the foreground, one sheep says to the other, “Thank goodness, a Border Collie just arrived.  I was worried this party would never get off the ground!”

You and I don’t like to think of ourselves like that!  Whatever else might be said of us, one thing is for sure, we’re certainly not dumb, foolish, dependent sheep that need to be led everywhere in order to survive anything!  We’re strong, independent, free thinking people who make our own choices, thank you very much, and we go our own way, even if occasionally – okay, more than occasionally – we’ll find ourselves headed down some dark and difficult pathways and end up kind of, well… lost and sometimes all alone. But it’s okay… we can handle this… we can get through it… except… when we can’t. Except when the journey becomes so arduous, and so conflicted that we can’t possibly make the way alone; when we start fearing the worst about everything and everyone, and every step takes us deeper into the darkest of valleys. So, okay then… maybe we do need someone to help us, to guide us and to give us comfort… someone like a shepherd, a good shepherd of the sheep.  So what do you know?  That does make all of us like sheep after all.

But, friends… not sheep in an idle, passive, “Cinderella” kind of way.  I’m talking here about sheep who listen; sheep who actively seek out and listen for the voice of their good shepherd, and who then gladly and joyfully receive his leading.  It’s only in listening, you see, that they know to follow!

Actually, this is also a very real trait that sheep possess.  Even today, shepherds in the Middle East, in order to gather their flocks into the sheepfold at night (and also to get them back out to pasture the next day), will call their sheep by name! And, yes, it’s true: the sheep do hear the voice of “their” shepherd; they actively listen for that one voice, and when they hear it and recognize it, then and only then will they follow. So the sheep are not being passive at all, but in their own simple way, being very faithful; because they know and trust that “their” shepherd will care for them in every way.  And they know this to be true because they have already heard his voice!

Our gospel reading for this morning takes place at the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem (in the winter, we’re told by John; so it was during Hanukkah, likely in December!), and as Jesus is walking in the temple, the Jews – presumably the elders of the temple, who were already quite perplexed by Jesus and what he might represent – ask him, “How long will keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  And Jesus has a simple answer that probably raised more questions for them than it answered:  I told you already, but you don’t believe; and you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. “My sheep,” Jesus says, “hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  They know me; they know that I will give them eternal life, that they will never perish, and that they will never be snatched away.

Do you see what’s happening here?  Jesus confirms for us, once and for all, that we do indeed have a “Good Shepherd” who will be there with us and protect us from all harm, and that we will know his voice; but inherent in that is the need for each one of us as his sheep to truly and actively listen for that voice!  I dare say that this is the challenge for most of us who would claim our place as members of Jesus’ flock of sheep and who would seek to follow him as his disciples: to listen so closely and intensely for the voice of the Good Shepherd that we’ll recognize it when we hear it; and rather than being some passive act, it ends up becoming one of the most faithful things you and I will ever do on any given day!

When we are truly listening for God’s voice, it means that we are seeking to be attentive to something larger and greater than ourselves… and that affects the way we live our lives, most especially in the spiritual sense.  It changes the the way we pray; because it moves us from endless speaking to silent anticipation; it means our being bold enough to cease being in control of things and letting the Lord lead (and we all know how hard a thing that can be for any of us!). Actively listening for God’s voice also has a way of making us more discerning; much more selective as to what we’re listening to.  For what with all the confusing voices that are ever and always clamoring for our attention and allegiance, amidst all the noise of this world one has to be attentive in order to hear the right voice!

What with having a “full house” of family over the past couple of weeks, as you can imagine, things can get a little hectic and pretty noisy!  At times, I’ve been reminded of those days when all three of our kids were very small, and every night there would be what we used to refer to as “zoo time;” when you’re trying to get these kids fed, and bathed and to bed while simultaneously keeping your own wits about you!  I mean, the kids are running around playing, fighting and working off some of their energy, the TV might be going and the phone’s ringing, and there’s also noise coming from the kitchen: absolute chaos, and next to impossible to hear anything; and I will freely admit to you all these years later that there were nights that all we wanted and literally yearned for was… quiet!  And yet, what I also remember about those days is that in the midst of that chaos – if we were truly willing to stop and really listen for it – there were in the voices of our children words and expressions of love, laughter and life as it is truly meant to be lived.  Granted, it often took some straining to hear it somewhere above the din, but with effort and close attention, it was there; and I can tell you that we’re sure glad we didn’t miss it.

And so it is with our relationship with God; there is so much of infinite value that God has to share with us, but amidst the rest of the world’s noise, it takes effort to be able to discern it. As Frederick Beuchner puts it, “God speaks to us… much more than we realize or than we choose to realize… who knows what [God] will say to me today or to you today, or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moments [God] will choose to say it.”

“Our days,” Beuchner says, “are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance… and the words that he says, to each of us differently, are be brave… be merciful…feed my lambs… press on toward the goal.

In this world it is admittedly much easier, and very tempting, to be a passive follower; just waiting idly to see how it all will work out or a least be watching to see what all the other sheep do.  But to be a faithful sheep is to be a listening sheep; it means to turn our ears and our hearts to a voice that rises far above the noise that too often surrounds us; it means to hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd who calls us each by name.

It might well require some concentrated effort on our part; but when we hear that voice at last, it will most certainly be an occasion for joyous shouting, singing and maybe even some barking (!)… for this will be the voice of the one who will give us life the way it is meant to be lived now and forever; for “surely goodness and mercy shall follow [us] all the days of our lives, and [we] shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

So let us listen…

And may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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