By the Rev. Darren Miner
You know, I pity those poor benighted souls who labor under the delusion that today is Mother’s Day, when in fact, it is Good Shepherd Sunday. And as you know, each year on this day, followers of Jesus are called sheep. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t like it very much! Now, I was all right with it once upon a time, when all I knew about sheep was based on stained-glass windows of Jesus cradling a lamb and on that nursery rhyme about Mary’s snow-white pet. But things changed for me when I was about sixteen. I actually saw a real sheep! It wasn’t white as snow at all! Instead, its bottom was filthy, and it stank to high heaven. Be that as it may, Jesus is trying to get at something important in the two parables we heard read today, so even if we don’t exactly resonate with the sheep metaphor, we would do well to “go with the flow.”
In the first parable, we’re told that the rightful shepherd is let into the sheepfold by the gatekeeper. The shepherd calls each and every one of his sheep by name, showing no partiality at all. His sheep recognize his voice and follow him; whereas, they will not follow the unfamiliar voice of a thief. It’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with an allegory here. Jesus is the shepherd, and the flock in the sheepfold is the Jewish people. Those Jews who belong to Jesus recognize who he is and follow him. The sheep left in the fold are the Jews who do not belong to Jesus and do not respond to his call. Now, the thieves and bandits in the parable probably represent the untrustworthy religious leaders of Jesus’ day. But it’s anybody’s guess who the gatekeeper who lets in the shepherd might be! Some have speculated Moses; others, John the Baptist, and still others, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus must have had the feeling that his audience didn’t really get the first parable, so he tries again with the second parable. But this time, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the gate into the sheepfold, instead of the shepherd of the sheep. I don’t know about you, but I find the change of metaphors confusing, rather than clarifying. Jesus goes on to say that whoever goes in and out through this Jesus-gate will be saved from harm and will have a good life.
Now, I must say that I really like this message. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re promised salvation and abundant life. But we’re left wondering what happens to the sheep that don’t follow the Good Shepherd. And what happens to the sheep who don’t use the Jesus-gate? Well, our scriptures and our tradition offer conflicting testimony. Saint Paul seemed to think that all the Jews would eventually find salvation through Christ. (He says nothing about salvation for Gentiles who refuse to follow Jesus.) Saint Gregory of Nyssa hoped that all creation would somehow be saved. But Saint John the Evangelist seems to see salvation as restricted to those who explicitly acknowledge Jesus. Well, my personal take on it is this: I pray that God will save all people through Jesus Christ, whether or not they were able to recognize the voice of the shepherd in this life. In terms of Jesus’ first parable, I hope that the shepherd will keep going back to the sheepfold calling each remaining sheep by name until every one of them finally recognizes his voice and follows where he leads. The advantage of being a sheep with a good ear is that you get out of that cramped sheepfold and into green pastures a bit earlier!
While Jesus was originally addressing these two parables to the Jews of his day, there is something in these little stories for us today as well. As Jesus’ followers, we too are meant to listen for Jesus’ voice calling us, and we are meant to follow where that voice leads. Now, it may mean that we will be called to leave the fold that we call home in order to faithfully follow him, as in the first story that Jesus tells. Or it may mean entering through the gate of faith into the fold of fuller and more abundant life, instead of straying or balking at the gate, paralyzed by fear.
But hearing and recognizing Jesus’ voice is not easy! Our lives are lived amidst a cacophony of competing voices calling us every which way. If we’re feeling insecure, our own inner voice may call us to hoard our resources and take care of ourselves, with no regard for others. If we listen to the voices on TV, we may be called to spend, spend, spend or eat, eat, eat. If we listen to the voices of some politicians, we may find ourselves being called to identify vicariously with the fabulously rich and to vote against the interests of the most vulnerable members of our society. So how are we expected to hear the voice of Jesus’, let alone recognize it when we do hear it?!
Well, I can suggest three spiritual practices that may help.
Here’s the first suggestion. Make time in your busy schedule for some stillness. Turn off the TV. Log off the computer. Put down the novel. And be quiet. You can just sit and look out at your garden, or you can go for a walk in the park. Just find a quiet place. Next, ask God for guidance, and then stop talking and begin listening. At first, you’ll hear nothing but the chatter in your head. “My back is feeling achy. My stomach is empty. My feet hurt.” Gently still your mind with an image or a word that reminds you of God. Let that image or word take over for a while, till you can return to the stillness. When in that still place, listen deeply. In those quiet moments, the voice of our Shepherd can sometimes ring out loud and clear.
Paradoxically, for some, the quiet can be too deafening. For those people, I would recommend music. Find some music that makes you feel at peace, music that refreshes you whenever you hear it. Set aside 15 minutes to listen to your playlist with no distractions. Let the music wash over you. Let yourself be drawn out of yourself for just a while. But pay attention to the feelings you experience. Pay attention to the beauty. Pay attention to the yearning that the music evokes in you. Let your soul drink from those still waters. Then when the music stops, you might ponder how you can contribute to the divine beauty of creation.
Not surprisingly, we can find the voice of the Good Shepherd in what is sometimes known as “the Good Book,” the Bible. Try this out. Each day, read just a few verses of scripture. Then ponder them for a while. Note any words or phrases that stand out. Then read the same verses again, asking how those verses touch your life today. Read them a third time, this time listening for a call to action. Finally, sit in silence for a while in gratitude for all that you have and all that you are and all that you still may be.
Now, the spiritual practices I’ve just mentioned are practices that you can do on your own. But you don’t have to do them on your own! All these forms of contemplation and meditation can be done in a group setting. And the great benefit of listening for the Shepherd’s voice together is that some other sheep in the fold might hear your name being called when you weren’t paying attention and then give you a gentle nudge in the direction of the gate for the sheep.
Finally, if you’re really desperate to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, you might go so far as to listen for it in the words of a sermon. You never know, you just might hear a random phrase in some interminable sermon that actually makes some sense. You just might hear the quiet voice of our Shepherd calling you to make changes in your life, perhaps to try something new and challenging or perhaps to free yourself from something that holds you back.
I guess my take on today’s Gospel is this: if we wayward sheep can only stop our frantic bleating and listen for just a moment, we will most assuredly hear our names being called. We then need only follow where that gentle voice leads us. There we will find green pastures and still waters. There we will “have life, and have it abundantly.” And for this, I am willing to be called a sheep! Amen.
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Link to the Gospel reading: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Easter/AEaster4_RCL.html#GOSPEL