This 4th Sunday of Easter brings us the familiar Scripture passages about shepherds (Psalm 23) and some not-so-familiar, like this passage from John. What does it mean to actually listen, not just hear?
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
Dear friends, grace and peace to you from the God who holds us close, through the good shepherd, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
This 4th Sunday in Easter always uses scriptures that illustrate and break open the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd of the sheep.
“Good Shepherd” is a powerful image indeed, one that has been with humanity since we began tending sheep and even today in an urban setting holds deep meaning for us. It is such a powerful image that there are many churches who have taken it as their name.
Show of hands, who has ever had the opportunity to engage with sheep, maybe in a petting zoo, or if you maybe raised sheep?
I raised sheep myself, in 4H. I raised market lambs and eventually had breeding ewes too. I really got to know about how sheep behave.
And like our gospel story today, they did hear my voice and they knew it. (Now they may have only known it as the one who fed them, but still.)
Over the last few days I’ve been at the Pacifica Synod Assembly with your voting members, Betty Dagen and Kathy Mitzen. The theme of the assembly was “O Lord, Open My Ears: Listening for God While Listening to Each Other.”
The desire for something around this theme has been building, so it may have been completely coincidental that it dovetailed with this gospel story.
Folks in our synod have been hungering for some practical work, ways to address the difficulty we have in our society of having a constructive dialogue around difficult topics. We engaged in active listening in 5-minute breakout sessions, we heard from keynote speakers who are specialists in communication across the divides, and we spent time in quiet prayer, listening for God.
In our gospel story, the folks who have come to him – and again, this is better translated as “the religious authorities” instead of “the Jews” – are looking for a quick, pat answer. Tell us if you’re the Messiah.
Now in all fairness, they are operating within their religious tradition, which also happens to be Jesus’ religious tradition. But Jesus’ overall message has been and is that he is not the warrior Messiah they’ve been expecting; rather, his work of reconciling us to God is almost beyond scope and description.
But they make a mistake: they say “tell us plainly.” So he does. VERY plainly. So plainly it’s almost rude. It could almost be paraphrased as, you’re not paying attention. I’m telling you and I’m showing you who I am but not only are you not watching, you’re not listening. And that means you are missing out.
This is a little different from the gentle and gracious good shepherd picture we all have in our minds, isn’t it?
But if God’s love is meant to include the entire kosmos, then we do need Jesus to speak plainly about what sort of Messiah he is.
The key, of course, is to really listen when Jesus speaks. As we learned at Assembly this week, listening is different from hearing.
If Jesus’ audience here were to actually listen, with all their senses, to what he was saying, they would remember all they had heard about him, all they had seen him do, and realize that he is talking about being a different kind of Messiah.
Different, because Jesus is willing to let his works be his first and primary witness, instead of any words he might use. In our modern vernacular, we would say “he walks the walk, not just talks the talk.”
Now this is by no means any endorsement of works righteousness – which is the concept of earning your way into God’s grace that moved Luther to action. Instead I want to encourage us, as we read last week, to follow Jesus. What would happen if we let OUR works be our primary witness? What actions might testify most authentically to the presence of God in our lives?
In Scripture, the shepherd’s task is one with dangers on every side. The shepherd must drive away predators and navigate hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd risks injury, even death for the sake of his flock. It’s the work and dedication of a shepherd that has made the image one that represents Christ.
Luther Glen Farm was added to the camp in Oak Glen some years ago now, and it’s become a place where young people learn about creation and God’s love for them while working with growing crops and interacting with a delightful assortment of animals. Two of the goats, Sarah and Nugget, are visiting us today.
Our Lutheran camps are places where young people are encouraged to live lives that demonstrate what God’s love looks like in action.
Like all farms, this one has a dog. Actually, Luther Glen Farm is blessed with FOUR dogs.
The senior lady is Gracie, an English Springer spaniel. Her sight and hearing are questionable at her age, but she loves life on the farm. She gets a senior discount; she doesn’t have any responsibilities.
But the other three dogs are working dogs. They are Grands Pyrenees, some of the best protector dogs there are. They are big and affectionate, but they are also vigilant when protecting livestock. The matriarch dog of Luther Glen Farm, Annie, proved this in the fall of 2017. She’s the sweet big dog on our bulletin cover today.
Fall is a somewhat quiet time at the farm. Both the executive directors, Pastor Glen and Lauri Egertson, were off the property on business. Nate and Anthony and the others were done with their day’s work and were in their quarters. Pastor Glen arrived back at almost 10 PM, and as he got out of his car, Annie jumped the fence at the retreat center with a rattlesnake in her mouth.
It was still alive.
Pastor Glen raced inside to get his BB gun to dispatch the snake – relocation was not an option. Annie was barking ferociously at it and had certainly fulfilled her guard dog duties of protecting the herd.
But no one realized what she had really risked until the next day.
The next morning, her face was horribly swollen, and she was having trouble breathing. Lauri raced back to the farm, and the vet confirmed their worst fears: Annie had been bitten by the rattlesnake, more than once.
She had had the anti-venom vaccine, of course; this is standard procedure in the back country and the mountains for dogs. But being bitten more than once compromises the effectiveness of that vaccine, and Annie was struggling. Even with steroid injections and all the anti-venom follow-up that was safe, she was likely seeing the foot of the Rainbow Bridge in the distance.
It was a very frightening several days. When I arrived with women of my home congregation for a retreat, Annie was still sequestered, only allowing Lauri to be with her. We had been praying for this sweet, brave dog, and she seemed to be holding on.
At the end of the weekend, I stayed on for a few hours to absorb the beauty and the calm energy of Luther Glen. Lauri brought Annie up to the retreat center, and she was doing better. “Don’t touch her face, though,” Lauri cautioned. Understandable.
Annie and I sat out on the patio in the fall sunshine. And after a time, she got up and walked carefully around the fenced perimeter, nose to the ground. I followed her, and we explored the area together. Eventually she laid down under the big oak tree and went to sleep. I took that opportunity to help out by pulling some weeds around the retreat center.
Not fifteen minutes later, I came back around the corner and Annie was gone.
“You had one job!!!” I yelled at myself as I grabbed her lead and went tearing down the hill.
But I didn’t need to be afraid. Annie had jumped the fence and was back down by the herd, checking on their welfare and making sure her younger cohorts were doing their jobs.
She, along with Jesus, is the good shepherd of Luther Glen Farm. She quite literally laid down her life for the sheep. And goats, and pigs, and chickens, and so on. Today, she is as healthy as ever. And if I were a rattlesnake, I’d stay far away from Luther Glen!
Jesus speaks to us today of the Shepherd’s voice. It is a voice of promise. It is a voice that promises stubborn protection and care. It is the voice the flock hears and knows and follows. It is the voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain. And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out. And yet even when those other voices overwhelm; yes, even when we don’t pause to listen – it is always there, inviting and comforting and urging us on.
And in those times when you can’t quite hear it, that is when the tangible, lived witness of others reminds us what it looks like to live with God in your life. These are times of accompaniment, of walking with others who hear the shepherd’s voice and hold space for us until we can hear, and listen again.
And I am sure that if we listen closely, we’ll hear God’s voice speaking through those selfless actions of others. For the family of Luther Glen Farm, they hear God’s voice speaking through the bark of a big white dog named Annie.
God is still speaking. May we be found listening. Amen.