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Fourth Sunday of Easter Cycle C (2)
How many of you think that you know the voices of other people? I wonder if you would know your mother’s voice or your father’s voice, or even my voice if you could not see me. Would you like to try? (Let them answer.) I have some blindfolds that I want you to put on and wear for a few minutes. While I am helping you put on your blindfolds, I want to invite some of your parents to come up front with us. We are going to let them talk to one another while you are blindfolded, and when you hear your mother or father speak, and you are sure that it is your parent talking then, you should walk toward them and hold out your hand. We will see if you know their voices as well as you think you do.
Invite the parents to gather around and begin to talk about anything. That was a lot of fun, and we really learned something. Most of us really do know the voices of our parents, don’t we? We did this experiment for a very good reason which I am going to share with you right now.
Jesus liked to talk about himself as being a shepherd. He thought that this was a good way to explain how God and people worked together. God is the shepherd, and we are like the sheep. A shepherd takes very good care of his sheep, but the sheep are allowed to do a lot of things on their own. A good shepherd is so close to his sheep that the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice. If there were a lot of sheep and a lot of shepherds together, the sheep would always know the voice of their shepherd, and gather around him.
That is the way it is with Christians. Jesus is our shepherd and we belong to him. When Jesus speaks, we should hear his voice and do what he tells us to do. We should also follow him and behave ourselves in the way that we know that Jesus would behave himself. The voices of the people whom we love are very important to us, and we like to hear them because they make us feel safe and loved. Jesus has a voice like that, and, though we cannot hear it in the same way, we are sure that he speaks to us in our prayers and through the Bible. Of course, that means that we must pray and listen to the Bible; and when we do, we know that Jesus will be just like a shepherd. The next time that you hear the voice of someone whom you cannot see, I want you to think about today and remember that Jesus speaks to us in many ways to show us how much he loves and cares for us.
“Happy Mother’s Day” to all the Moms here today as well as to those who serve as Mom substitutes. You deserve to be celebrated on this special day because of the incredible impact you have on so many lives.
A good mother is such a powerful example of God’s love. Many mothers are willing to do almost anything to communicate their love to their children. Some even try desperately to keep up with the changing styles popular with young people nowadays. Good luck with that.
Reader’s Digest magazine recently published some amusing texts from mothers who weren’t aware of the most current acronyms young people use for texting. You know what an acronym is. We use them all the time. An acronym is a word formed from the first letter or first few letters of each word in a phrase or title. For example, R.S.V.P. is an acronym for a French phrase, “Répondez s’il vous plait,” “Respond if you please.” Or F.B.I. is an acronym, of course, for Federal Bureau of Investigation. Young people use acronyms all the time when texting.
One mother wanted to know the meaning of some acronyms she had seen. So she texted her son. “What do IDK, LY & TTYL mean?” she asked in her text message.
Without explanation, the son texted back: “I don’t know, love you, talk to you later.” Those, of course, were the meanings of IDK, LY & TTYL.
Mom didn’t get it. She thought he was ignoring her with his message: “I don’t know, love you, talk to you later.” She replied: “OK, I’ll ask your sister.”
Another mother texted her son: “Your great-aunt just passed away. LOL.”
The son replied: “Why is that funny?”
Mom texted back: “It’s not funny, David! What do you mean?”
The son texted: “Mom, LOL means Laughing Out Loud.”
Mom replied: “Oh, no! I thought it meant Lots of Love.” Then she added: “I have to call everyone back.”
There is a task that all of us have to learn how to do, usually taught by mothers, at least, all of us who are not totally spoiled need to learn how to do. The task is doing the laundry. Even when our Moms taught us, the chances are good that we learned how to do the laundry the hard way. Probably at one time or another all of us had whites that ended up pink, or grey or the traces of some other color that dominated the load. That’s when we learned that it is not a good thing to wash your whites with your colors.
Then that is followed by the fear of doing in again. Once the fear begins, it’s hard to stop it.
Evidently, that rule doesn’t hold in God’s washing machines. In the vision from the Book of Revelations, our second reading, people are seen who had just done their laundry. They are wearing robes that are sparkling white. The robes represent their baptismal garments. But the reading says that they washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb. It is all symbolic. They carry palm branches which is the symbol of martyrs. The people in the vision are those who died for the Lord.
We all sitting here know that our lives are in danger. Some have been in a war zone, that’s dangerous. Firefighters in Stamford, CT start at $100,000 because it is a dangerous job. With all the shootings going on in educational. Institutions, the teachers who start at (believe it or not) at $20,000, now want more pay. Always looking over our shoulders. Thirty years ago Kitty Genovese was killed on a Queens street; people on that street were just so worn out from crime and fear, they weren’t going to get involved. Why make it worse?
So when we start to fear, it’s contagious. And if any people had reason to fear, it was the earliest followers of Jesus. Once it became clear that following Jesus was a different way of life, opposition would come, from the Jewish community who could not comprehend these Christians, and from the non-Jewish community who saw things only in terms of pleasure and power.
In today’s Gospel reading the Lord tells us that his sheep will never perish. He says, “No one can take them out of my hand.” When we study the history of Christianity, we learn about thousands and thousands of people who were persecuted for their faith, people who had everything taken from them, but no one could take God’s life from them. The martyrs, those who gave witness to Christ with their lives, will never die.
We are all also aware of the thousands who are suffering this present day because they are Christians. God’s love for them is strong. They may be assaulted or even killed, but they will never die. They have affirmed their baptism with their testimony to Christ. They have washed their baptismal garments in the Blood of the Lamb.
The first reading presents Paul and Barnabas being persecuted for the faith. They were not put to death. That would happen later in both of their lives. At the stage of their Christian lives presented in today’s Gospel, Paul and Barnabas are mocked by their own people, Jewish people, as they presented the faith in Antioch in Pisidia. Paul and Barnabas were run out of the city, symbolically shaking the town’s dust off their feet as Jesus instructed disciples who are rejected to do in Luke 9:5 and parallel passages.
I do not know whether any of us here will be put to death for our faith. We may be called upon to die for our country or our brothers and sisters in arms. I would hope that all of us would be willing to die for Christ. Realistically, the chances of that happening are slim, unless of course, some of us choose to care for people in those countries where Christianity is persecuted. So, it is easy for us to say, “I would die for Christ.” But are we willing to be persecuted for him?
That is the question we have to ask ourselves when we are called upon to take a stand against popular but immoral positions. Certainly abortion is one of these, but there are other positions demanding that we stand up for Christ and accept persecution from the pseudo intelligentsia around us. For example, we need to take a stand against the bigotry and hatred when and if it is used by politicians who appeal to people’s basest instincts. We have to proclaim the gospel and affirm that a Christian cannot give in to hatred, especially that which might be lurking within the recesses of his or her mind. Nor can a Christian close his or her eyes and ears to those who promote hatred. If in some people’s minds relating the Gospel to the current times is, to use the attacker’s words, “spewing a political position,” then we need to accept persecution and promote Christianity.
Sometimes we have to accept persecution from those within our own families or circle of friends when they expect us to join them in affirming popular immorality. Many times people will say that it is so wonderful that two people have found each other and are now living together, even though they will not marry for social security reasons for the elderly or for commitment reasons among the young. When we say, “I can’t accept that,” we will be attacked, persecuted, or at least excluded, but we cannot turn from the truth of the Lord.
There are times that we suffer simply for doing what we need to do. Many of you are or have been care-givers. Some for your husbands or wives, some for your parents, and some for a chronically ill child. You have been pushed beyond your comfort zone so many times that you forgot what a normal event-less day is like. I’m sure you could find ways to turn from your responsibilities, but your love won’t let you. Your love is God’s love, sacrificial love.
All good parents, you folks, love their children sacrificially. You cannot count the times that you have gotten up in the middle of the night to care for a child. It is what you do. Your day revolves around your children’s needs, not your wants. Sometimes you are exhausted, but always you are loving. You are also loved by your children in their own way and loved by your God who sees how well you love Him through your children. That doesn’t make your life easy.
If Christianity were easy, the Lord would never have said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The Lord says to us today: “Use my laundry service. Wash your robes white in my blood. Stand up for me, care for my children, and know that I will always care for you. Don’t be afraid. You will not perish. You are mine.”
Fourth Sunday of Easter Cycle C (1)
A couple retired to a small Arizona ranch and acquired a few sheep. At lambing time, it was necessary to bring two newborns into the house for care and bottle-feeding.
As the lambs grew, they began to follow the rancher’s wife around the farm. She was telling a friend about this strange development.
“What did you name them?” the friend asked her.
“Goodness and Mercy,” she replied with a sigh. (1)
She was referring of course to a line in everyone’s favorite Psalm, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (KJV).
Our lessons for today from Scripture all refer to sheep or shepherds. It is probably the most familiar image in Scripture. God is a shepherd. We are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrews. That is perhaps why sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, more than any other animal.
For King David, who authored much of the Book of Psalms, the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd was an obvious way to think of our relationship with God. He had vivid memories of life as a young shepherd before he became a warrior and a king. Thus he begins his popular and beloved Psalm 23 with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
But David wasn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this imagery. The Prophet Isaiah used sheep to illustrate the waywardness of God’s people. Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” Now you’re probably thinking, how did he know about us? He sure got us right.
And, of course, this descriptive language is carried over into the New Testament, concerning Jesus. He is the ultimate Shepherd of God’s people as well as the unblemished, sacrificial Lamb of God.
Now, unless you’ve grown up on a sheep ranch or spent a lot of time at a petting zoo, you’re probably not all that familiar with sheep. In any case, you probably wouldn’t think that being described as a sheep is very flattering although, the truth is, sheep have more right to be offended by the comparison than we do.
Most of us probably prefer to think of ourselves as mavericks, too smart, too free-spirited and individual to go along with any herd. It’s natural, perhaps for Americans in particular, to celebrate qualities that are more characteristic of mules than of sheep. Sheep, unless someone is having a hard time getting to sleep, tend to be woefully under-appreciated.
When most of us think of sheep, we suppose them to be feeble-minded animals too stupid to think for themselves, and therefore apt to follow along with the rest of the herd, sometimes into dangerous or deadly situations. However, this image of the life of a sheep is based on a lack of understanding. When you really get to know a little bit more about sheep, you begin to realize that being a good sheep that is, a sheep that sticks with its flock and tries to remain close to the shepherd requires some basic qualities that are also essential to being a disciple or true follower of Jesus Christ. And, like the disciple of Christ, the sheep benefits greatly from belonging to the flock, gaining safety, guidance, nourishment, correction and care, as well as the opportunity to be useful and productive. Being part of the flock is the sheep’s equivalent of American Express membership has its privileges.
But membership also has its responsibilities. And in our more mule-like character, we are sometimes resistant to those responsibilities. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit to make us into the right kind of sheep to follow Jesus especially those of us who, if you don’t mind a bad pun, are seriously “hard-of-herding.”
We need to ask ourselves, what does being a good sheep require? How can we make sure we’re in the right flock, obeying the Good Shepherd instead of wandering off on our own or following a stray herd? What do we need to know and do as members of Christ’s flock? Let’s look at that for just a few moments.
Our lesson from John’s Gospel is set during the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. The Festival of Dedication is what we know nowadays as Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights. It’s celebrated for eight days in December.
Jesus is in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. Solomon’s Colonnade was a long covered walkway on the east side of the temple. As he walked, some inquiring Jews came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Notice what Jesus says about his flock. First of all, he says that he knows them individually. This is a beautiful picture of our relationship with God, each of us is known by God.
There is an amazing story that comes from the Wycliffe Bible Translators. This story concerns a tribal people in Cameroon called the Hdi. [Nowhere could I find the proper pronunciation of this tribe’s name or the other key words in this story, so bear with me.]
Translator Lee Bramlett, working with the Hdi people, discovered that verbs in the Hdi language consistently end in one of three vowels: i, a, or u. Even more interesting, the ending vowel determines the true meaning of the word. This appears to be true of every word in the Hdi vocabulary except for one the word which means love. When it comes to the word love, the Hdi people use an “i or a,” for the last letter. However, no word for love ends with “u.” In other words, the two words for love are dvi, d-v-i and dva, d-v-a. There is no dvu, d-v-u.
Lee Bramlett asked the Hdi people for help in understanding this discrepancy concerning the word love. He asked, “Could you ‘dvi’ your wife, [d-v-i]?”
“Yes,” they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was now gone.
Then he asked, “Could you ‘dva’ your wife, [d-v-a]?”
“Yes,” they said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.
Then Lee Bramlett asked the question that truly puzzled him, “Could you ‘dvu’ your wife, [d-v-u]?”
Everyone laughed. “Of course not!” they said. “If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘dvu.’ It just doesn’t exist.”
Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked, “Could God ‘dvu’ people?”
There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded. “Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God would keep loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.” (2)
Do I need to tell you that the word dvu was added to the Hdi translation of the Bible to express God’s love for all the people of the world?
Christ knows his sheep by name. Christ dvus his sheep. He keeps loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, even when we reject his love. He is compelled to love us, even though we sin more than any people. That’s the first thing Jesus says about our relationship with the Shepherd. He knows us individually. But listen to what comes next.
Jesus says the sheep listen to his voice. This relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is not one-sided.
A man in Australia was arrested sometime back and charged with stealing a sheep. But he protested that he owned the sheep and that it had been missing for many days.
When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter. Finally he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom. Then he ordered the plaintiff, the man who had accused the man of stealing his sheep, to step outside and call the animal. The sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened.
The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and call the sheep. When the accused man began to make his distinctive call, the sheep ran toward the door and his voice. It was obvious that the sheep recognized the familiar voice of his master.
“His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!” (3)
Let me ask you a question: is this imagery descriptive of your relationship with Christ? Do you listen to the voice of Christ?
We see in the first reading that hearing the voice of Jesus is not easy. It was because some could not hear that voice—for whatever reason—that Paul and Barnabas decide to bring that message to a bigger audience, to those who were, even though pagans, more open to hearing God’s Good News. And, of course, the openness of the pagan people, the Gentiles, began the great missionary expansion of Christianity, bringing it to continents and lands where our own predecessors lived.
I believe you will agree that most of us are great talkers when it comes to our devotional life, but poor listeners. We give God our orders for the day, but we are not committed to reverently listening to the orders God has for us. Christ says he knows his sheep, but then he adds, “and they listen to my voice.”
Then he says his sheep follow him.
Perhaps we do not feel today we need to follow the Good Shepherd out of fear or persecution, although Christians in the Mid-East and other cultures certainly do. Once the fear begins, it’s hard to stop it. We know what’s like to be in Brussels now, or to be in Parish; we were on September 12, 2001. It only takes on crazy person to make it start again. Always looking over our shoulders. But we can hardly imagine what it’s been like to live in Aleppo, or Homs, or some of these bombed out Syrian cities; how can you ever forget the months of artillery, the snipers, even the poisonous gases? Thirty years ago Kitty Genovese was killed on a Queens street; people on that street were just so worn out from crime and fear, they weren’t going to get involved. Why make it worse? But it is also our comfort and relative affluence that should drive us to our Shepherd. Because we can fall for the illusion that it’s all about money, pleasure, fame, and escape. We can forget that our comforts can kill us as readily as any enemies can. We can have our ears so filled with sweet nothings that their emptiness blots out even the voice of Christ.
Author Neal Andersen contends that those of us who live in the western world don’t have a correct picture of what it means to be led like sheep. Western shepherds drive their sheep from behind the flock, often using dogs to bark at their heels. Eastern shepherds, like those in Bible times, lead their sheep from in front.
Andersen tells about watching a shepherd lead his flock on a hillside outside Bethlehem. The shepherd sat on a rock while the sheep grazed. After a time he stood up, said a few words to the sheep and walked away. The sheep followed him. It was fascinating! Andersen says the words of Jesus in this passage suddenly took on new meaning for him, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (4)
Jesus is well aware of our weakness and our waywardness, so he adds this final word of Grace: Christ says that no one can snatch his sheep from him. In other words, God dvus us. Nothing in all creation can come between us and our Shepherd.
There is a story from yesteryear that says it beautifully. The year was 1850. On the prairies of the Midwest light snow was still falling in March. There was a little log cabin on the prairie in which a little boy, Timmy, was on the verge of death from diphtheria. A Methodist circuit rider came by to visit Timmy. He wanted to see if the boy was all right, since he had heard that he was not doing well. He came into the room to find little Timmy sick in bed. The circuit riding priest asked Timmy if he knew how to say the 23rd psalm. Timmy replied that he had learned it in the second grade at his Sunday school. He started reciting the Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The pastor told him he was reciting it much too fast. Timmy tried to say it again this time more slowly. The pastor decided to teach him how to say the 23rd psalm in a different way. He asked him to count the words on his fingers, beginning with his thumb. “The Lord is my . . .” This way when he uttered the word “my” he would be holding the fourth finger of his hand. The preacher explained, “Your parents wear their wedding rings on the 4th finger of their hands. This is the finger of love. So, if each time Timmy recited “The Lord is My Shepherd,” when he grabbed his fourth finger, it would be a reminder that the Lord is his personal shepherd, “The Lord is MY Shepherd.” This pleased Timmy and he recited the psalm accordingly. Then the pastor bid Timmy farewell and went on his way.
When he came back to see Timmy it was springtime. He noticed that there was a mound of upturned earth with a cross on it in the backyard. He realized that Timmy had passed away. Timmy’s parents spoke about what a good boy Timmy was. Then they described his final night. They had kissed Timmy good night. In the morning when his mother went to check on him, she realized that he had died. But there was something that caught her eye and she found it extremely strange. She noticed that Timmy was holding on to his 4th finger. She asked the pastor. The pastor could only answer her with tear-filled eyes. (5)
You and I know what it meant. “The Lord is My shepherd.” Or as Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows us by name. We are to listen for his voice and follow him, knowing that he will provide for every need. And nothing will every separate us from his love. This is his promise to his people, the sheep of his pasture.