11″I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Image source: https://unsplash.com/search/penguin?photo=-oGSMD7DVMU Used under Creative Commons Zero license.
Listening for the Voices
Today’s reading always reminds me of the movie, “The March of the Penguins.” The subjects of the documentary are the Emperor Penguins who live in Antarctica. It chronicles a year in the life of a breeding colony. The emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed during the arctic winter. At the beginning of the Antarctic winter -right about now, actually, the female penguin lays her one egg and passes it off to the male for safekeeping. She then makes the long journey to the sea to eat, leaving the male to care for and protect the egg through the worst of the winter. When she returns, she finds her mate and child, feeds the chick and then the male breaks his 9 week fast and goes to hunt for himself. What I find most appropriate about the penguins for this Sunday is the penguins use of vocalization. You see, the penguins do not have a fixed nest that their partners can uses as a landmark to come back to after eating. The Emperor penguin must rely on voices and vocal cues for identification of mates and offspring. The chicks have a unique call, and the parents do as well. It is through calling out to each other that partners can find each other, and parents can find offspring.
Picture it – – you are at a crowded event with someone – -perhaps the movies or a baseball game. Maybe you are with a child, maybe with a friend. But there are 2 of you and you are walking to your seats when suddenly you look around and the other person is not there. What do you do? Do you stop walking and look around, hoping to catch a glimpse of a baseball cap or ponytail that you can hurry and catch up to? If you don’t see the person you are separated from, then what? Our next response is to call out the name of the other person. Have you ever been in the mall and heard a small voice call out “Mom? Dad? Where are you?” Two weeks ago I was at the grocery store and saw just such a thing. A preschool boy had turned left when his mother had turned right and he lost sight of her. He was standing by the cash registers calling out “mom?” in a very small voice. A passing cashier went to page her – the boy knew his mom’s name– and we stayed put. He still called out “Mom…Mom….” His voice growing stronger each time he said it. Now, lest you cast the mom in a bad light, this whole series of events took maybe 15 seconds – before her name was paged over the loudspeaker, she was at his side. As his voice got louder, she came down the aisle, calling his name. When he heard his name, from his mother, he turned and ran to her. When she heard her name she was visibly relieved. It was the calling out to each other that enabled them to find each other. She knew his voice, and he knew hers. If I had called out her first name, she would have responded – -we have all had it happen to us – -but not with the emotion of a parent finding a lost child.
And what I find so interesting about the penguins, what I witnessed that day in the grocery store, is what Jesus illustrates in today’s reading. But today’s reading is part of a larger story. To get the full effect, we go back to the 9th chapter of John and read through chapter 10. The condensed version is this: There was a beggar who was blind. The disciples following Jesus asked why the man was blind – -what sins his parents had committed. Jesus said it was not the sins of his parents that caused the blindness, and knelt in the mud and made a paste with his spit and rubbed it on the eyes of the beggar. He then sent the man to go wash the mud off of his eyes. When he did, his sight was restored. Upon returning to the place where he had been, the neighbors kept asking – -is he the one who was blind? I don’t know, do you? The beggar kept saying “it was me!”. The neighbors kept asking – where is the one who healed you? The beggar had no idea. He didn’t know what Jesus looked like – he had never seen him. It’s comical really. But then the Pharisees got involved and investigated the matter – the healing had happened on the Sabbath. Jesus eventually found the blind man and the man recognized him by his voice and his deeds. Which leads into the parable for today. Jesus begins describing the thieves and the wolves who want to hurt the sheep in the first 10 verses of chapter 10. He is still speaking to the Pahrisees as he continues with todays’ reading. He says that he is the shepherd and he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.
Jesus knows us – -the sheep of his flock. He knows what we sound like, what we do and he guides us along the way. I learned this week that shepherds do not lead the sheep in the same way cattle are led. Sheep are led from behind, guided by the voice of their shepherds. They hear his encouragement that moves them through rocky places to the nourishing grass. They know that while he is behind them, he knows the way. Sheep know their shepherd is tending the sick and the lame, all the wile directing them where they need to know. They listen for his voice, and they trust him.
They listen for his voice. Think about that for a minute. The emperor penguins can call out all they want for their mate, but if the mate is not listening for their voice, the two will not be reunited. When we are separated from our companions, we listen for their voices even though we cannot see them in the crowd. The mother and son at the grocery store were listening for each other even as they were calling out. Before we can recognize and respond to a sound, we must first listen. Susan Hedahl, Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA talks about 5 different kinds of listening in her commentary on this text. Each of the 5 are interrelated – but they all begin with the ability of an individual to hear sounds and move to different levels of analysis, critique, concern and appreciation.
Here is an example of the difference between hearing and listening. One of the cable news channels had a panel discussion about a political event. There were commentators from varying political perspectives and the host of the show asked a question. Each commentator then told what he or she thought about the question. Then they began the “debate” portion of the segment, and it became quite apparent that each of them was not listening to the others. They were so worried about what he or she would say next, that while they recognized the sounds they heard were of someone talking, they did not actually process what was being said, pay it attention, or respond to what was actually said. They heard a pause in the conversation and jumped in to say what was on their mind. There was no true listening, no true processing of the sounds he or she heard and giving it consideration.
I think sheep hear a lot of things – -they hear the sounds of the birds, the sounds of traffic if their pastures are next to highways. They hear the sounds of animals and farm equipment, the wind in the trees, the chewing of grass and falling rain. They listen for the voice of the one who guides them, the one who leads them and claims them as his own. They listen for and respond to the voice of the shepherd.
Here’s a true story. There was a man who was a farmer and shepherd. One summer, he went to the county fair and ran into someone he knew from town. They had a conversation that left the farmer feeling uneasy. Upon his arrival at home, he noticed the tire tracks in the dust and the sheep pen open. Sure enough, all the sheep were gone. I don’t know the specifics of the conversation the two had at the fair that day, but it was just odd enough that the farmer suspected the man he had spoken with of stealing his sheep. Two weeks later, there was another fair and the farmer went. Sure enough, his neighbor was there with new sheep – -his sheep that had been retagged. The farmer knew the sheep by sight. He entered the pen, and the sheep could smell him – even with all the other smells in the barn, the sheep knew their shepherd. When he began to whistle, the sheep began to get excited and he was able to lead them away.
The sheep knew that shepherd and the shepherd knew him. This is not an occurrence that happens overnight. A relationship and trust are built between the 2 parties. The sheep learn to listen for the shepherd, to hear his or her voice and to trust where it leads them. They learn to listen for the shepherd’s voice and follow it.
How do we listen for the voice of our shepherd? In all the noise that we hear in a given day – the TV on as we get ready in the morning, the radio and voices in the grocery store, the continual hum of noise that surrounds us. All those things we hear and do not pay attention to, as they are just noise. There are a lot of them. It can be hard to find time to really listen – -to listen to those we have relationships with, to listen to those we are building relationships with. It takes time and energy to truly listen to each other. And to listen for the voice of our Shepherd, to listen for the voice of God can take even more. I wonder if often we just assume it is there in part of the din of the world. We talk when we pray – either in our heads or out loud, but how well do we listen to what Jesus is saying to us?
It can be hard to hear the voice of our shepherd if we are not listening for it. But there is a second part in there as well – -the response. The response is how the penguins find each other, how the lost child is reunited with a parent. How do we respond when we listen to Jesus?
I invite you to sit with that this morning. To take that question with you – -when we listen to Jesus, as sheep listen to the shepherd, how do we respond? If we do not respond, are we really listening?
One way we respond is by coming to the table. We come to the table with joy during the Easter season, remembering that as he promised, he was resurrected. We respond with gratitude for his death for us. We respond in service to those he called us to serve. We listen to our shepherd in worship – -we listen as we sing, as scripture is read and proclaimed, as we hear once again the telling of our story as we prepare to come to the table. Jesus speaks to us all the time. He knows us and leads us through the noise of the world. He tells us “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” Do we hear him when he speaks to us? Do we listen when we hear him? How do we respond to the voice of Jesus?