Saturday, April 16, 2016

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
April 17, 2016
Easter 4/Year C/John 10:22-30
Commissioning of Suzie Porter, Associate in Ministry

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

No doubt about it, we’re smack dab in the middle of the most interesting, contentious presidential campaign in years.

Since 1972 when I first voted, I can’t recall a time when the major parties were as splintered as they seem to be this year!

The campaign rhetoric is hotter and heavier than ever, and some of us are sick to death of it….even though the election itself is still over six months away.

What this campaign seems to make clearer than ever is that political campaigns are always about both ideas and personalities.  

By rights, we should be focused on the ideas and issues before our nation—and some of the time that’s what the candidates are paying attention to.  

But this election of 2016 is also very much about personalities—how we feel about and react to this array of candidates who are all trying to gain our trust and garner our votes.

Issues vs. personalities:  it’s tempting to think this is something new, but it’s not.   Politicians have always had to BOTH put forth their ideas and showcase their personalities….because, come Election Day, we voters will make judgments about both of those things:  the reasons we lean toward one candidate over another, but also the relationships we hope to have with those who would lead us.

And truly, this interplay of “reasons and relationships” goes on in other parts of our lives as well, including our lives of faith.

Even here in this gospel lesson from John 10 we some of these dynamics playing out.

Jesus has been teaching and working wonders almost nonstop throughout the first ten chapters of John’s gospel, and everywhere he goes the reactions of those around him are mixed.   Some are drawn to him, others are repulsed by him, while others are still trying to make up their minds.

Such wonderment about Jesus finds voice here in “the Jews”--which in John’s Gospel usually is code language for the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus at every turn…. 

…These Jewish leaders have had enough with hearing Jesus teach and watching him perform signs and wonders—they want answers.  They crave a conclusion:   “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus’ opponents demand facts, answers and evidence.  They want Jesus to give them reasons why they should take him seriously.

Nothing has changed.  People still want reasons for aligning themselves with Jesus.  Folks are still saying to Jesus: “give me what I’m looking for–some evidence to meet my criteria–and then I might buy into what you’re all about.”

But what Jesus does, in response to his Jewish opponents, is to give them anything but plain, black-and-white answers.   

Instead Jesus engages with them on his terms, responding with:  ‘‘I have told you, and you do not believe. You’ve got more than enough information about me.  The problem isn’t my willingness to speak plainly–it’s your unwillingness to grasp it, or (more accurately!) to be grasped by it.”

“Let my actions do the talking,” Jesus continues.  “Watch what I’m doing–read the signs.   There are persons who are catching on, being grabbed by the awareness of who I am and what I’m up to.”

“But you do not believe, “ Jesus tells his opponents--“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Here, Jesus’ opponents want to talk about reasons, but Jesus shifts their focus more toward relationships.   Believing, for Jesus, can only go hand in hand with belonging. 

Believing isn’t likely to happen in a safe, armchair discussion about Jesus.   But believing just might happen in a face-to-face encounter with Jesus.  Suspend your disbelief long enough to hang around Jesus—and belief might grow on you, faith might overtake you and never let you go.

But how does that actually play out?

Jesus offers a clue that is both plain-spoken and poetic.  Jesus gives his opponents a metaphor, a word-comparison, one of the most beloved in all the Bible:

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I have known two fathers in my life.   Both were southern MN farmers who kept sheep.

My own father, Lawrence, was with me for the first 21 years of my life.  He kept a small flock of sheep because they were cheap lawn mowers.

You see, our family rented farms on shares, and there was often an unoccupied farm-site that went with the deal.   So my dad would haul that little flock of sheep from farm-site to farm-site to keep the grass short and the weeds down-to-size.

These sheep knew my father and they heard his voice.   If my dad needed the sheep to come to him he’d just put two handfuls of shelled corn in the bottom of an old steel pail, shake the corn a little, simply call: “Sheep”—and they would come.   As easy as that.

For the second 21 years of my life I had my second father, my father-in-law, Kenny.

He also kept sheep, but he used a much more colorful vocabulary around them.  Kenny probably knew sheep better than Lawrence did—Kenny knew just how ornery sheep could be, so when he called them he usually tossed in a cuss-word or two, the kinds of words you don’t want me using in the pulpit.

Kenny—even though he used more colorful language than Lawrence did—Kenny still called his sheep, and they still heard his voice and responded.  The cuss-words didn’t seem to bother them.   The sheep came anyway.

Because sheep are like that.  They become so familiar with their shepherd that just one syllable from the shepherd’s lips sets their feet in motion.  Sometimes all it takes is the farmer’s hand on the latch of the barn door–sometimes you don’t even need to say anything.

My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.   And all at once he’s speaking in a whole different realm here.  Jesus lifts up a relationship of deep familiarity, of intimacy--a relationship forged over time, a relationship that can mean life or death for members of the flock.

That’s what Jesus is after with you and me. 

That’s what Jesus wants to give us.  Not reasons that will let us make up our own minds, according to our own set of standards.  

No.  Jesus hankers, rather, for a relationship.  Jesus wants to “get” us–to gain us and keep us forever.

And Jesus will do whatever it takes to “get” us, to make such a relationship happen.

Jesus woos us, Jesus wins us for such a relationship by speaking to us lavish promises—promises that sound too good to be true.  Jesus wins us over by standing behind those promises, even if it means death for him—a death he willingly dies, so that you and I might live forever in his forgiving freedom.

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I seriously doubt that anyone ever gets argued into or convinced into the kingdom of God.

But I do believe Jesus “gets” us, that God wins and woos us, in much the same way that a shepherd finesses the flock.

Sometimes with just a little corn in the bottom of a steel pail.

With provender, in other words–provisions and promises that win us over, draw us in, keep us safe for this life and secure for the life to come.

God wins and woos us this day once again, with a splash of water, a taste of bread and wine, and with just a few words–words in which we hear the unmistakable tones of the Shepherd’s own voice.

God wins and woos us this day once again…

…and God uses us in his flock—the flock called “church”—God uses us to be his shepherd’s voice in this world of lost lambs. 

And truly isn’t that what this congregation is all about?  Isn’t that the goal of all the ministries of Trinity?  Isn’t that why we’re focusing especially today on youth and adult education ministries, as we commission Suzie Porter as an ELCA Associate in Ministry?

The only way folks can get close to Jesus is by getting close to those who already belong to Jesus.   

And there’s never an end to that good work.  Surely it’s what can keep us wandering sheep out of mischief for another week, don’t you think?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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