Easter 5a, May 7, 2017

May 9, 2017

Flocking to Jesus

John 10:1-10


1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”


You can spend a lifetime in Arkansas without having any live encounters with sheep, but if you spend any time in church or in Sunday School you become exposed to the image of shepherding. I don’t guess I’ve ever known an actual shepherd, but I’ve been reading  the 23rd Psalm for years, so I think nothing of saying that the Lord is my shepherd. It’s interesting to think of how much the economy of Jesus’ day influenced the language of our faith. It makes me wonder what images Jesus would have used if he had been from Arkansas. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not leave Wal-Mart through the check-out line is a thief and a bandit. I don’t know if this would have made it through the centuries.


But the shepherding language has stuck, and it has created a curious situation for us. This is a case in which many of us are more familiar with the metaphor of shepherding than we are with the nature of the job. I become aware of this when I encounter texts like this where the terminology becomes more specific. I had to google sheepfold to find out what Jesus was talking about.


And the passage makes more sense when you know what a sheepfold is. Basically an ancient Palestinian sheepfold was a large pen made with rock walls that were often topped by thorns to keep thieves from climbing in and stealing sheep. Each village would have it’s own sheepfold where different shepherds would bring their flocks at night or for a period of time. Different flocks would mingle in the fold until their shepherd would come and call them together and lead them out. These people generally raised the sheep for their wool, so they would have the animals for years, and there would be a lot of familiarity between the shepherd and his sheep. The sheep would learn the voice of their shepherd, and they wouldn’t follow the song of anyone else.

Jesus used this image of sheep recognizing the sound of their shepherd’s voice to describe the way in which his followers respond to the sound of his voice.


When I was going through the process of becoming an ordained minister I was administered a test called the MMPI – the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Actually because of a couple of mixups I took that test on 3 different occasions over the course of a few years. It’s one of those tests that asks a question and you choose between answers like: always, sometimes, rarely, or never. It got to where I could remember the questions and I did my best to answer them in a consistent manner. I didn’t want to present myself as having multiple personalities. I’ve pretty much forgotten what it asked, but there’s one question that I never really knew how to answer.

The question was: Do you hear voices?


And that’s an interesting question for a Christian to ponder. Do you hear voices? Now most of us know not to admit to hearing voices. People who hear voices aren’t known for behaving well. Some people take pills to keep from hearing voices. But who are we as Christians if we aren’t people who somehow hear the voice of Jesus? This very text indicates that it’s important to hear his voice and follow him.


I really can’t remember how I answered that question. I think I knew I should probably say never, but I also believe that I’m in need of hearing the voice of Jesus. I really wasn’t that concerned about how that would appear on my test results, but I remember being largely stumped by the question. Do I hear the voice of Jesus or don’t I?


I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of voices in my head. Now before you make too much of this let me say that I don’t actually hear voices in my head. There’s a lot more silence in my head than there is a cacophony of voices telling me what to do. I don’t really hear different voices, but I find myself considering what others would say to me if they were in the room.


Of course this is what some people spend years and thousands of dollars trying to figure out by going to see a therapist. This isn’t a bad thing to do. In fact I think we would probably all do well to have access to someone who would listen to us as we wonder why we do the things we do, but hearing the voice of Jesus is a far different thing to hear than the voice of a mother or a father or a sibling or a spouse. We all know the needs and desires and agendas of the people who are naturally close to us, but the voice of Jesus is a different thing. It isn’t something we are accustomed to hearing. The voice of Jesus is like no other.


The voice of Jesus is that voice that calls us to a place that isn’t as familiar as the place where we are born or where we currently reside. The voice of Jesus is that voice that calls us to become extraordinarily loving.


I know a couple who have recently undergone the process of becoming approved as a home for a foster child. These aren’t people who are needing to do this for any reason other than their desire to make this world a more hospitable place for someone who’s world has been defined by insecurity and turmoil. What I know about this couple is that they are seeking to follow Jesus, and I can’t help but think that this is something that they have been encouraged to do by the voice of Jesus. This isn’t an easy thing that they’re doing, but I also believe it’s the kind of thing we do that puts us in touch with the thing Jesus referred to as abundant life.


We are remarkably individualistic in many ways. We guard our personal usernames and passwords of our various accounts with great diligence. If you are like me you need an app on your phone to contain the various names and passwords we use to gain access to our personal accounts. I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose or forget the password to that account. We are very individualistic when it comes to managing our personal business, but I think we are a lot like sheep when it comes to doing what’s expected of us. We have our individualistic agendas, but we’re also guided by our desire to blend in with the flock.


We don’t tend to think of ourselves as having a flock mentality, but we’re probably guided more by the flock than we may realize. What we eat, the way we dress, what we watch, and what we do is highly influenced by the flock to which we are associated. There are some flocks to which we are officially aligned, but there are others that we are less aware of, and I think we need to pay attention to the agendas of the various flocks to which we belong.


Just as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day weren’t providing leadership that actually led people into closer communion with God, I’m sure there are some voices to which we pay attention that aren’t leading us toward the abundant life that Jesus came to provide. Just as Jesus stood in sharp contrast to the accepted leaders of the flock in Israel 2000 years ago, Jesus is most likely calling us to step away from some of the familiar and comfortable trends of our day.


I listened to a heartbreaking story the other day about a woman who worked as an Iraqi translator in the early part of the war in Iraq. She became invaluable to the military commanders that she was working with. She became such a powerful source of information she was nicknamed, The Lion. She loved the work she did and she was really proud of what she did, but she was also devastated by the consequences of her work. Both her husband and her closest friend were killed because of her cooperation with our military. She had to flee the country along with her children, and she’s been living as a refugee in Jordan ever since. In spite of the recommendations of several military officers her application for asylum in our country her requests have been denied because of the fear we have in our nation of terrorists.


And of course it’s not unreasonable for us to want to be careful about who can enter this country, but our fear of terrorists has produced some policies that have done great harm to many individuals who have made great sacrifices for our country. And this is often the problem with a flock mentality. A flock can be very reactive to anything that poses any kind of threat to our personal security. And I think there are people who want us to maintain a level of fear in order to more easily control the behavior of the flock.


I think one way to see the difference between the dishonest leaders of Israel and the voice of Jesus was that the Pharisees and other religious authorities of Jesus’ day did their best to control the flock through fear and intimidation. There were severe consequences of not following the religious protocols of the day. For most people it meant that you were somehow ostracized from the flock if you didn’t do as you were expected. Of course Jesus was such a threat to the leaders of the flock they were moved to plot his execution, but Jesus didn’t lead his flock with the tactics of fear. In fact one of the things he said on many occasions was to fear not.


I think this is something that we need to recognize in ourselves. Are we motivated to do the things we do out of fear? If we are, I don’t think it’s the voice of Jesus that we’re hearing and following. In fact, Jesus may very well be calling for us to move in some frightening directions, but he doesn’t want us to be afraid. I know for a fact that my friends who recently opened their home to a foster child were terribly nervous about what that would be like.


But I also believe that it’s those steps we take that carry us out of the safety of the familiar flock that put us in touch with the flock of Jesus. I don’t believe we are all alone when we hear the voice of Jesus calling for us to take new steps in the direction of love. There is a flock of people who have responded to the voice of Jesus and there’s no better company to be found.


It’s not unreasonable for us to think of ourselves as one of Jesus’ little flocks, but it’s also important that we remain vigilant in the effort to hear the voice of Jesus. I know it’s a little crazy to talk about trying to hear the voice of someone that we don’t really see, but it’s the best way I know to describe what it is that we’re called to do. As Christians, our primary task is to live in this world without being controlled by the expectations of this world. We aren’t just to hear and respond to the various voices of conventional wisdom that are telling us how we are to be and what we are to do. Most of the voices we hear in this world are speaking to our fears and our self-serving desires, and those voices aren’t telling us where we are going to find true life.


It’s the voice of Jesus that can lead us to that place, and it’s his voice that we are challenged to hear. Jesus does continue to speak, and by the grace of God we will have the ears to hear and the wisdom to follow him.


Thanks be to God.




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