4 Easter C—4/17/16
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Pr. Scott Kramer
When I go to the gym I like to listen to audiobooks while I’m working out. One book this past week was about a famous person you might recognize [play audio]. Yes, it’s My Brief History, a short autobiography of Stephen Hawking, the famous cosmologist. As you may know, when Hawking was a young man he developed ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak for most of his adult life, he is nevertheless greatly aided by technology. A computer program was developed for Hawking that allows him to speak. Many who have heard him instantly recognize the voice.
This fourth Sunday in the Easter season is also called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” so today’s readings feature images of shepherd and sheep. In today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus responds to people who are deeply skeptical of who he is. Who are you, Jesus? His reply: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
There are at least two important questions in today’s readings: The first is, How do the sheep recognize the shepherd? And the second is, How does the shepherd recognize the sheep?
How do the sheep recognize the shepherd? Well, we might naturally think that the shepherd looks familiar. But if there’s any theme that shows up again and again in these weeks of Easter, it’s that appearances are deceiving. We don’t need the Bible to tell us that things aren’t always what they appear to be (!) but it’s certainly true in the Easter stories. Nobody recognizes Jesus—at least, not right away. After his resurrection when he shows up, his friend Mary is weeping at the tomb. She sees him but thinks he’s the gardener. Only when he speaks does she recognize him. In another story, he shows up on the road beside his friends, and it’s only in hindsight that they recognize him…because of his words: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” And last week, on the beach, again they didn’t recognize him…until he spoke.
How do the sheep recognize the shepherd? My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. The sheep do not rely solely on appearances. If they do, as the stories of Easter affirm, they may not recognize the shepherd when he shows up.
Stephen Hawking is known to the world by his voice. Likewise, the Good Shepherd is known to his sheep not simply by sight but by voice.
If the sheep recognize the shepherd by his voice, the second question is, How does the shepherd recognize the sheep? Again, appearances can be deceiving. Sheep tend to all look the same. But we do have a clue. The final word in last week’s story was two simple words: “Follow me.” The shepherd doesn’t recognize the sheep necessarily by their voice or by their appearance, but by their willingness to follow.
This past week I was reading that beloved psalm—Psalm 23, our psalm for the day—and I imagined Jesus praying this psalm. It would have been very familiar to him. Imagine Jesus, the Good Shepherd, praying the words, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life… The sheep who follow the Good Shepherd are known to the shepherd not by their voice, not by their appearance, but by their desire to follow the shepherd. Goodness and mercy follow the shepherd. Jesus replies to his interrogators: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” Likewise, the sheep indicate who they follow by what they practice: goodness and mercy.
What do you think of when you think of “goodness”? Maybe, someone who is well-behaved, not rocking the boat, toeing the line, quiet. But Christians are not called to be well-behaved! In the face of injustice we are not called to be well-behaved. In defense of the poor, the powerless, the persecuted, being good might mean creating a racket, kicking up a fuss, irritating some for whom comfort and power are their first concern.
In today’s gospel reading, the question by Jesus’ interrogators (v.24), reads, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” But another translation reads, “How long will you keep annoying us?” Christians, sometimes in the name of goodness but maybe more out of fear or indifference, are often too well-behaved, too quiet–and then injustice, brutality and oppression have their way.
Goodness, according to the psalmist, is associated with mercy. Patience, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, advocating for those who are at the margins of society—this is what Christian goodness looks like. The sheep recognize the shepherd by his voice, and they follow the shepherd by speaking out for those who have no voice–which is what the Good Shepherd did during his life on earth.
We tend to place a lot of stock in appearances. We tend to follow what suits us, what feels familiar. We follow our education, our training, our emotions. We tend to follow people who don’t challenge our beliefs and assumptions but those who merely affirm what we already believe, and maybe what we’ve always believed. But if the stories of Easter teach us anything they teach us that relying on appearances and on what looks right or seems right could very well lead us astray.
The Good Shepherd does not scrutinize our beliefs. The Good Shepherd doesn’t seem too interested in doctrine or theology. The Good Shepherd doesn’t even seem all that interested in whether a person acknowledges Jesus as Lord or knows the name of Jesus at all. Those who follow me hear my voice. “Goodness and mercy will follow me…”
And yet, we do tend to place a lot of stock in appearances. Not just judging others according to what appears right—but our own appearance, too. How much energy we invest in creating a favorable impression for other people! How much, on the other hand, are we likely to courageously, persistently hold our lives in all respects to the standards of the Good Shepherd, following the Shepherd through the practice of goodness and mercy, regardless of how others may judge us?
We may or may not recognize the voice of Stephen Hawking. We surely recognize the voices of those whom we love, and to whom we are close. But to what extent do we recognize–and follow–the voice of the Good Shepherd, living lives of goodness and mercy?
Let us pray…