Who Wants You to Believe What? And Why?

John 10:1-10

The Revised Common Lectionary, which most pastors and preachers follow in our tradition, repeats every three years.  The texts don’t change, but the way we hear them is different every time.  God continues to speak through these texts to this people in this place at this time and in these current circumstances.  The text doesn’t change, but the circumstances do.

Six years ago, for instance, today’s gospel text spoke to me powerfully and deeply in ways I could never have foreseen.  

Only two days before preaching this text, I had presided over a memorial service for Meghan Brown, the daughter of some our closest friends, a young woman who had grown up with our kids.  

I had performed her wedding two years earlier, which gave her death an extra layer of pain for me and a feeling of something like guilt, because she was murdered by her husband, the man I had united her to in marriage.  

When I came to the part of today’s gospel where Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” it just wrecked me.  

But then I thought about her memorial service.  I thought about the church filled to capacity with people who had been touched by her, whose lives had interconnected with hers and with ours.  I thought about how they had all come “back to church” for her, back to the Christ-centered starting point where all our relationships had begun.  

I thought about how in that service, despite the pain and anger and sadness that had brought us there, we experienced the joy and comfort of the abundant life we had all shared over the years.  And I realized that our abundant life continues.  I realized that Meghan’s abundant life continues, that she lives on in the hearts and memories of her friends and family and in the loving presence and heart of Christ.

Three years ago, when this gospel text came up for the 4th Sunday of Easter, we were still in the very early days of the Covid 19 pandemic lockdown.  Talking about the abundant life seemed like the apex of irony when we were sequestered in our homes and hearing about thousands of deaths every day.  But our abundant life together continued in spite of our enforced isolation.  We found ways to continue our worship and education online and even discovered that our after-worship fellowship time had a unique advantage because everyone was able see everyone all at once and speak to everyone all at once, taking turns in the conversation. 

The text is the same but we hear it differently because of what is going on in our lives and in our world.  

What’s influencing the way you hear the text this year?

One of the downsides of preaching the lectionary is that the lectionary sometimes isolates sections of a text from its fuller context.  The fourth Sunday of Easter, for example, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, so the lectionary each year takes a different section of chapter ten from John’s gospel where Jesus uses shepherd and sheep imagery.  We get a different part of chapter 10 each year, but all these fragments are part of a larger unit, a larger story being told in John, that starts at the beginning of chapter nine and doesn’t end until verse 21 of chapter 10.  

This is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and the events of the story that’s told in chapter nine play out in and give meaning to the cryptic shepherd imagery Jesus uses in chapter 10.  

After Jesus gives the blind man his sight, some Pharisees are upset because Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  By the time we get to the end of this story in verse 21 of chapter 10, some of them are accusing Jesus of having a demon and being out of his mind.  Others, however, noted that a demon wouldn’t say the things Jesus has been saying and that a demon certainly wouldn’t open the eyes of the blind. 

They heard the same words but they heard them differently.

When the formerly blind man tells his interrogators that Jesus is a prophet, they drive him out of the temple.  He’s gets booted out of his lifelong flock but in that same moment he is received into another flock. 

He has been kicked out of the religious community that he had been part of his entire life, but he has also been immediately accepted into the faith community surrounding Jesus, the “sheep who hear his voice.”  He hears Jesus not only as the prophet who gave him his sight, but now as the Son of Man (9:35-38) who came into this world “for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” (9:39)

The Pharisees and religious authorities who kicked the blind man out of their “flock” are also listening to Jesus but they’re not quite sure what to make of him.  In his Shepherd language, they hear Jesus referencing Isaiah and Ezekiel and Zechariah, but in alluding to those prophets, they also hear something that might be criticism leveled directly at them.

The formerly blind man hears Jesus describe himself as the gate that opens to welcome him into the safety, camaraderie and protection of the flock led by the Good Shepherd.  The Pharisees hear Jesus describe himself as the gate that separates the flock away from their influence and the rigid observance of religious traditions that they see as the only path of righteousness.

They hear the same words but they hear very different meanings.

When I taught Confirmation, I always began our section on the Apostles’ Creed by asking the students, “Who wants you to believe what, and why?”  We kept that question in front of us the whole time we talked about the Creed.  We kept that question in front of us as we talked about our society and all the forces and influences in our culture that want us to think and act a certain way.  We kept that question in front of us as we talked about all the voices that call out to us in life, that call us to follow them, voices that are not the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Who wants you to believe what?  And why? 

When we were ordered to stay at home three years ago to help prevent the spread of a disease that was killing people by the thousands every day, when we were ordered to wear masks in public, when we were asked to practice social distancing and stay at least six feet apart from each other when we took the risk of venturing out for groceries, most people heard these orders as the voice of medical authority urging reasonable precautions in order to keep us all safe.  But some protested and refused to abide by these precautions because they heard these orders as the voice of malicious authoritarianism with some kind of nefarious secret agenda.

We all heard the same words.  We didn’t all hear them the same way.  We didn’t hear the same voice.

What voices are you listening to?  What news sources do you read or watch or listen to?  What kind of message are they giving you about the world?  Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love?  Or are they messages rooted in fear?  Do they seek to enlarge your freedom and the freedom of others or do they want control?

We’ve just entered another Presidential campaign season, and this week one of our political parties released a campaign commercial  depicting a bleak and almost apocalyptic future that will supposedly be the inevitable result of electing their opponent.  All of the images in the commercial were  generated by Artificial Intelligence.  Nothing in it is real.  Nothing at all.  Even the images of real people are faked, intentionally faked in a way that makes them look creepy.  At the end of all that computer generated dystopian imagery a voice asks, “Who’s in charge here?”  

Wow.  Talk about gob-smacking irony.  That’s quite a question, coming from a machine.

But I have another question:  Who wants you to believe what?  

And why?

What voices are you listening to?  What news sources do you read or watch or listen to?  What kind of message are they giving you about the world?  About yourself?  What kind of messages are you letting into your heart and mind and soul? 

Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love?  Or are they messages rooted in fear?  

Do they seek to enlarge your heart or shrink it?  

Do they seek to open your embrace of others or close it?

Who is the gatekeeper for your heart and mind and soul?

“Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The Shepherd leads the sheep and they follow him because they know his voice. But there are so many other voices that want to distract us.  So many other things calling our names and asking for or even demanding our time. So many things drawing us away from the sheepfold, from the companionship of faith.  So many voices competing with the voice of Jesus, the Shepherd.  

We know what they take from us, these voices that call us away.  But what do they give us when all is said and done?

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” said Jesus.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life.  That’s what Jesus wants to give us

Abundant life.  That’s what the community of faith is supposed to be about—what it is about at its best.  Abundant life is the gift Christ gives us in our life together.

As I conducted Meghan’s memorial service six years ago, I realized that, while it was Meghan’s tragic and untimely death that had brought us together that day, it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who had originally brought us all together in the first place.  We had all met each other in the very beginning because we had come to church.  We had met in the company of Christ.  We had heard the voice of the Shepherd who called us all together into one great big flocking family.

That’s how it has been for us here, too, at the Little Church with a Big Heart.  Jesus has been our gateway into this remarkable community, this flock that is so full of love, a love that has been palpable and undiminished by the years.  

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for the Shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

The Shepherd calls us by name and we follow his voice.  Sometimes he calls us to flock together and sometimes he puts us out to pasture.  When I retire in a few weeks, I’ll just be following the Shepherd out to pasture.  But I will still be listening to the Shepherd.  And I will always be grateful for the time I spent in this flock.

And as I follow the Shepherd out to pasture, I will still be listening to the world around me and asking who wants me to believe what?  And why?

Heart Signature

John 10:11-18

There is a lot about you that is unique.  Your fingerprints are unique, of course, but did you know that so are your toeprints?  Your voiceprint is also unique and can be used to identify you.  The patterns in the irises of your eyes are yours and yours alone.  And the same thing goes for the patterns of the blood vessels in your retinas.  Your gait when you walk is identifiable and can be used to pick you out from a crowd.  You can be singled you out from a multitude of other people online by patterns in the way you type on your keyboard or move your mouse, a little trick that’s been used, apparently, in espionage.  But here’s a new one—at least it was new to me.  Did you know you have a distinctive cardiac signature?   That’s right.  Your heart beats in a way that is unique to you and can’t be disguised.  The Pentagon has recently developed a laser-based tool called Jetson that can read your cardiac signature through your clothes from 200 meters away.  So now if somebody says they know your heart you might want to ask exactly what they mean by that.

“I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”   Jesus knows your heart, although clearly not in the same way that the Pentagon’s invasive new toy does.  More importantly, though, we know the heart of Jesus.  We know he loves us and he cares for us enough to lay down his life for us.

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.  I wonder how many of us really understand what he means by that.  I think what comes to mind for most of us when we hear “Good Shepherd” is a kind of greeting card image or something like the beautiful stained glass doors at the entryway of our church.  We picture Jesus looking pristine in his robe with a gentle, pure white lamb draped across his shoulders.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.  I think, though, that the image it brings to mind for us is a far cry from what it called to mind for the people listening to him on that long-ago day in Jerusalem.

When he was talking to people two thousand years ago in Galilee and Judea, Jesus used metaphors that were part of their everyday life.  That’s what made him such an effective teacher.  Even people who had never been outside of Jerusalem’s walls knew about shepherds.  They were a common sight.  They had all seen shepherds bringing sheep into the city for the markets and for sacrifices in the temple.  

Shepherds were also part of their faith heritage.  Joseph had been a shepherd.  Jacob worked as a shepherd for Laban so he could marry Rachel and Leah who had also tended sheep.  Zipporah and her sisters tended flocks.  Moses tended sheep before God called him to lead people.  King David started out as a shepherd.  The prophets spoke of the kings and religious leaders as shepherds—sometimes good, sometimes not so much.  Yahweh was regarded as the ultimate shepherd and, through the prophets, spoke of the people of Israel as “my flock.”   

When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, it brought a particular image to mind for those listening to him, but it wasn’t stained glass and greeting cards.  There was nothing particularly pristine in their picture of a shepherd.  They knew that shepherding was a dirty, smelly job.  But they also knew that good shepherds were strong and  brave and tough when they had to be to protect the sheep.  David, the shepherd boy, told King Saul he was tough enough to take on Goliath because he had already killed a bear and a lion.  

At night, when a shepherd would bring the sheep in from the pasture into the safety of the fold, he would recline across the opening of the sheepfold, making his own body the gate of the sheep pen, a barrier between the sheep and any predators, so that anything or anyone that tried to get at the sheep would have to do it across his body.

Often several shepherds would bring multiple flocks into a large sheepfold for the night.  When it was time to lead them out again to pasture in the morning, each shepherd would simply start calling out the sheep call that was familiar to his own flock.  Each flock knew their own shepherd’s distinct voice and would follow him and only him out to pasture.  So again, when Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice,” he is using a metaphor that’s familiar to everyone listening.  

So why is Jesus using this powerful image in that time and place?  He’s in the precincts of the temple.  He is already in hot water for healing on the sabbath, bringing sight to a man born blind.  This is all happening during the Feast of the Dedication, Hannukah, the feast that commemorates the rededication of the temple after the victory of the uprising led by Judas Maccabeus over Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BCE.  Judas Maccabeus was a national hero, someone whom the Jews thought of, historically, as a good shepherd.  The temple was the place that more than any other symbolized the people’s covenant relationship with God.  So in the midst of all of this, the Pharisees and temple authorities are listening to Jesus very carefully.  And what Jesus says is, to their ears, very provocative.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus.  Just what is he saying?  To their minds, God is the Good Shepherd.  Judas Maccabeus was a good shepherd of another sort. Was Jesus equating himself with God?  Or to the hero who had freed them from their Greek overlords?  They had to be wondering.  

And then he said this: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Who was he talking about?  Could he be talking about gentiles?  Is he talking about bringing them into the covenant?  Into the temple?  This was both unsettling and provocative to the Pharisees and temple authorities.

And who would those other sheep be for us today?  Who are those who are “not of this sheepfold”—or not of this church, maybe?—who Jesus intends to bring into the flock?

One flock.  One shepherd.  None of the artificial distinctions we’re so fond of making.  No us.  No them.  The Good Shepherd has gone outside the sheepfold to call in all the sheep who know his voice.  All of them.  All of us.  Are we ready to be one big happy flock with sheep we don’t know? Even if some of them have different kinds of wool?  One flock.  One shepherd.

“I know my own and my own know me.”   I wonder about that statement.  Is it always that straightforward?  Especially the second part—“my own know me”?  I know I’ve sometimes been misled into following other voices.  It’s easy to follow the voice of politics or partisanship or moralism or prestige or money or national  or racial or cultural or generational identity out into a wasteland full of predators.  It’s easy sometimes to think you’re following the Good Shepherd but it’s someone else mimicking his voice or borrowing his name for their own purposes.  We all saw those “Jesus” signs at the Capitol Insurrection.  I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the Good Shepherd inspiring that activity. 

“My own know me.”  I think that’s our never-ending homework—to keep listening, to keep learning to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to discern the voice of Christ above all the pretenders and the noise and other voices that try to distract us.  

“My own know me.”  Maybe Jesus states this so positively, so affirmatively, so that we have to take it as a goal and not make a liar out of him.  “My own know me.”  Okay, Jesus.  I will do everything I can to make that true.

But that first part—“I know my own,” –-That’s where the good news is for us.  Even when we have wandered off following the wrong voice or our own stubborn inclinations, Jesus still knows us. Jesus still says to us, You belong.  You are mine.  I know you.  I know your going out and your coming in.  I know your fingerprints and your toeprints and the pattern of your irises.  I know your heart.  I have your cardiac signature.  You are mine.

There will be one flock.  One shepherd…who knows the heart of each and every one of us.  And has laid down his life for us.  That’s the voice we can trust.