Sermon 5.3.2020: John 10:1-10/Psalm 23
This week I had the joy of being a part of the first ever Senior Comradery Zoom gathering. I was so impressed that 18 senior adults were on the call together, some with video, some with voice only– each one of them so glad to connect with one another during this time of social isolation, as many of them live alone. I was particularly struck by one woman who was on the phone and therefore unable to see the video images, but who clearly identified the voices of the others on the call: “Mary, I heard your voice, how are you?” “Linda, I heard your voice, are you still here?” She recognized the voices of her friends because she knows them, because they have spent time together, because they have a relationship with one another. She knew which voice belonged to which member of the group.
In this portion of the gospel of John, Jesus describes his relationship with his followers as one that is characterized by them knowing his voice. Using the figure of speech of a shepherd and his or her sheep, he reminds his listeners that those sheep who know the shepherd’s voice will follow the shepherd. They will not follow the voice of a stranger because they do not know that voice. I can not speak from personal experience with sheep, but I do know that dogs recognize the voices of their family members. At my brother’s home, his dogs even recognize the sounds of their cars pulling up in the driveway, responding differently to the sounds of their cars than to a visitor’s car sound. It is all about recognition, familiarity, connection and relationship. How many times have you said to someone in recent weeks, “Oh, it is so good to hear your voice!” I know I have used that phrase multiple times. We use it because it is good to hear the familiar voice of someone you care about.
A shepherd cares about the well being of the whole sheep—providing food to eat, water to drink, a safe place to rest and protection from harm. A shepherd keeps the sheep together because they like to be physically near one another in community just like we do! Throughout scripture, the figure of a shepherd is used to refer to the political leaders of the nations, some of whom are not good shepherds, some of whom are described as wise and caring shepherds of the people under their care. Shepherds are mentioned 110 times in the Old Testament, sometimes referring to the actual shepherds tending their sheep, but many times referring to the political leaders of the people in scathing terms, decrying their lack of care for the sheep. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking God’s message to the people of Israel, says: “My people were lost sheep; their shepherds led them astray; they deserted them on the mountains, where they wandered off among the hills, forgetting their resting place.” The prophet Ezekiel goes into a long diatribe against the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel chapter 34, contrasting their shepherding with the kind of shepherding God does. Listen: “The LORD God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? 3 You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. 4 You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. 5 Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for all the wild animals….. 7 So now shepherds, hear the LORD’s word! 8 This is what the LORD God says: As surely as I live, without a shepherd, my flock became prey. My flock became food for all the wild animals. My shepherds didn’t seek out my flock. They tended themselves, but they didn’t tend my flock.”
As we continue to deal with a rampant world-wide virus, we naturally look to our leaders, our shepherds, to make wise and caring decisions for all the sheep under their care. Some nations are doing a much better job at that than others. I do believe that when COVID-19 is behind us there will be many studies and books written about the different ways the shepherds of today have cared for their flocks in this crisis.
Jesus is the one whose voice is recognized by the sheep. He calls them by name, again evidence of an existing relationship. When someone calls you by name, they know you. Remember the encounter with Mary at the tomb on that first Easter morning that is included in chapter 20 of this same gospel… not really expecting to run into Jesus, she at first thought he was the gardener. She did not recognize him until he called her name. Then her eyes were opened.
Jesus uses this metaphor of being a shepherd to describe himself as kind of a commentary on the encounter with the man who had been born blind which is found in chapter 9. If you go back to re-read that story, you will find that after he heals the man’s blindness, a conflict ensues between Jesus and the Jewish leaders who could not believe the man had really been born blind nor that Jesus really had the power to heal him. Ultimately Jesus calls them blind– not physically, of course, but they are blind in that they can’t see the way God is working through Jesus in a new way to bring sight, to open hearts. They are stuck in their old ways. The contrast is stark between the once-blind man who can now see clearly who Jesus is and wants to follow him and the supposedly sighted leaders of the community who are confused about who Jesus is and want to get rid of him. Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep, but these antagonists do not recognize his voice, they are not being called by name.
Jesus shifts his metaphor when they don’t understand what he is saying. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep.” It is the third “I am” saying in John’s gospel. He has already said he is the bread and he is the light. Soon he will say, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, and I am the vine. Each of these well- known “I am” statements help to further describe Jesus and the way he relates to those who follow him. Here he is the entry way, the gate, the door into new life. The blind man has passed through Jesus’ attentive healing grace and entered a completely new way of life, into new possibilities for relationships with his family, friends and neighbors, into new work opportunities. This is the first explicit offer of salvation in these “I am” statements. Jesus had offered salvation to the man born blind. He was saved from social isolation and from being pushed aside for his whole life by his community as someone of little value. He has literally been saved from living in the dark and has figuratively walked through the gate into a new life because of Jesus. As a result, the once-blind man has now made a commitment to follow Jesus. The healing, grace-filled relationship with Jesus is a game-changer for him.
What do you need to be saved from? What do you want to leave behind as you enter a new life? Most of us would answer today that we want to be saved from fears of the covid-19. We want to be saved from feeling like we are imprisoned by the social distancing requirements. We want this surreal life that we are living now to end so we can go back to the way things were—going to the store when we want to, playing in the playground, going to school and to work, going to a concert. But we are likely not going to return to exactly the way things once were. As a society, as a culture, as an entire world, we are being changed by this experience, like it or not. This extended time of social isolation, whether you call it darkness or whether you call it a gift, has to change the way we look at things, the priorities we establish, the way we spend our time and our money, the value we place on relationships and community building. We are learning things about ourselves, learning things about our family members, learning things about our neighbors that we never knew. Because we must, we have found creative ways to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, to shop for food, to get exercise, and even to share in communion! We long for a return to the old ways, but I believe we will find that we have gone through a door now that will not allow us to simply return to our old patterns.
It is uncharted territory. We are feeling our way. Yet we do not walk alone. The psalmist reminds us to look to God as our shepherd who leads us to green pastures and beside quiet waters. Jesus is our shepherd and our gate. He knows our names. We listen for his voice in the midst of all the voices trying to give us guidance. His voice that is constant and faithful. His voice full of grace and peace. His voice saying to you and to me, to the world we inhabit: “I came so that you could have life, indeed so that you could live life to the fullest.” How will you live fully this week, my friends? Amen.
Sermon 5.3.2020: John 10:1-10/Psalm 23