A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter. May 15, 2011. John 10:1-10
In May of 1998, I was literally given a crash course on how quickly life can change in the blink of an eye. I had just started a new job and I was having some success, but one night after work I was driving home in the dark fog and rain. I remember seeing the brake lights of the car in front of me as it suddenly swerved and then for just a split second I saw headlights. I never even had time to hit the brakes. A 17-year-old drunk driver was driving the wrong direction in my lane and his car crashed head on into mine. It was a horrific accident scene.
What I remember next was an increasing chorus of muffled voices and sirens. I was pinned under the weight of the engine block that had come through the floor. The voices outside the car grew in number and volume. People were shouting and I became aware of the fact that a number of emergency workers had somehow managed to enter through the back of the car and they were yelling as they were trying to pull me free of my metal cocoon.
As they pulled me out onto a board, they put my neck in these blocks and strapped me in so tightly that I could not move. I could not see anything except the dark night sky and the rain pouring down on me, but I heard so many voices. Some of them were angry. Some of them sounded scared. I did not recognize any of them. I will spare you the gory details, but I heard one of those voices say that he had once seen someone with the exact same injuries as mine who “bled out” before they could get him to the hospital. I began to panic!!
It was not so much that I was not afraid of dying. I began to panic because I realized that I was afloat in a sea of complete strangers and that my last moments on this earth might be spent among people who did not know me---so I prayed. All I really wanted from God was to please let me see my wife and my little boys just one more time.
In the hospital I was still strapped in those necks block things and I could hear many voices and the sound of equipment, but I could not move. Finally, I heard a voice that I recognized. It was not only a voice that I recognized, but also a voice that I loved.
Before I ever caught a glimpse of my wife’s face, I knew she was in the room. It was only at that moment that I finally began to relax. Somehow, when I heard her voice, I knew that whatever the outcome, it was going to be okay. It was going to be okay.
We live in interesting times. It seems like we are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle of endlessly talking heads and competing voices that get louder and louder and louder. In a world of scary, strange voices that bring death, fear and division, Jesus says a defining characteristic of belonging to the Good Shepherd is being able to cut through the static and all of the other noise and tune into his life-giving voice.
Jesus uses the image of a Shepherd in our Gospel reading today. He says, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Our peace and stability in a shifting and unstable world will not be found in the sea of voices that compete for our attention. The source of our strength is found in one voice that we know and trust to lead us to abundant life.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about a friend of hers who grew up working on a sheep farm in the Midwest. She said, “It never ceased to amaze him, growing up, that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to. A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two note song means that it is time to go home.”
Today’s Gospel calls us to listen and pay attention and go deeper with the Gospel voice of our Good Shepherd because it is the voice that leads us to life. Of all the voices clamoring for our attention…only the voice of the Good Shepherd leads us to green pastures and beside the still waters.
As your deacon, I am called by my ordination vows to set before you the needs of the world. But in doing that I don’t want to simply be yet another voice in the mix. When I set before you the needs of the world I simply ask that each time you listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd. I cannot tell you what you should be doing. All I can do is present the needs of the world and ask that you listen to see if that is what God is calling you to. Whatever the ministry opportunity, the question is not “will this make the deacon happy if I do this?” The main question should be, “Is this where God is calling me to use my gifts and talents?” If you choose to get involved with something simply because someone twisted your arm to do it, you into, it will not be life-giving and it will not be spiritually sustainable. However, if you do it because have discerned that it is something the God is leading you to then it will be one of those places described in today’s Psalm that revives the soul.
Frederick Buechner says that our calling is to be found in the places “where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet”.
Let me give you a good example of what I mean by this. Our Outreach Committee has discerned a need for our parish family to reconstitute our Faith Link team with all new people and new energy. Faith Link is a program that brings together people from a faith community like ours and a single-parent, low income family to encourage self-reliance, independence and self respect by providing social and emotional support. In others words, it’s not so much about giving money as it is giving of who we are. It asks that you volunteer to take about an hour and a half a month to mentor and share the skills and gifts you have. This parish has been involved with this program for a long time, but the people who were involved with it have moved on to other places and other areas of service. In reconstituting this team we intend to celebrate our past successes and quite frankly learn from past mistakes. I believe in the fundamental goodness of this program because through my work at the Rescue Mission I was familiar with the successes of this program in other churches long before I came to this parish. I also believe there is an abundance of amazing gifts and talents in this parish that could be a blessing to a Faith Link family.
You get where I am going with this? Hehe….There’s just one catch, but it’s a pretty big deal for me. At the very core of what I value as a Christian, I believe it would be wrong for me to stand here in this pulpit and use guilt and shame to try to manipulate people to volunteer for this. That is not life giving. Ultimately, it does not lead to the wholeness that God desires for us.
When I left my former life of fundamentalism I made a promise to God that I was leaving behind guilt trips and brown beatings from the pulpit. I do not intend to go back there again. So what I intend to do is simply offer information about how to be involved with the Faith Link team in a presentation today at 10:20 in the Trinity Room and next Saturday at a breakfast in Stillwell Hall at 8:30. In doing so all I ask is that you listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and try to discern if it is something God is leading you to or not leading you to be involved in.
You see, while guilt and shame may be effective temporary motivators, they are external motivators. They are only good as long as the pressure from the outside is applied. But if someone discerns a call from God it will speak to something deeper within us and it’s life-giving. It’s an internal motivator because it comes from within.
I have discovered that when a person becomes convinced that God is calling that person to do something, you don’t have to beg, beat or drag that person kicking and screaming, you just have to get out of the way because they are doing it not because they have to, but because they want to.
Austin Mansfield tells a story about a priest he knew in New York City who went to Ireland to visit his relatives. While his friend was staying at his cousin’s farm, they decided to have some fun with him. After doing some chores in the fields, they told him to come in for dinner just as soon as he was through rounding up the sheep into the pen.
After nearly an hour of chasing after sheep, trying to push, poke, prod, and even pull them with no success, he gave up and asked the cousins to help. They sent out their five-year-old daughter, who simply called out to the sheep, and within minutes they had all followed her through the gate into the pen. He learned the hard way that it had nothing to do with strength or skill, but it had everything to with recognition of, and trust in the voice calling the sheep.
I invite you to come to one of the two information forums we are going to have---today at 10:20 or next Saturday at 8:20, but as your deacon, I cannot call you to join the Faith Link team or any other outreach ministry of this parish. I can humbly educate and inform you about the deep needs of this world, but only Christ can call you to the places where your deep gladness will meet those deep needs. I simply ask you to listen and remain open to the voice of the Good Shepherd because I know that voice will always call the right people at the right time out into the world, but it will also do something that I cannot do---it will lead to wholeness and deep and abiding gladness that restores the soul!
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
The call to live as a part of the flock that belongs to Jesus is a call to not be blindly swept up in whatever voices happen to be the loudest at any given moment. It’s a call to go deeper with the voice that we know. In the end, it’s a call to listen to the only voice that leads to abundant life because his is the voice that always leads to life----it always leads to life.