Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hearing the Shepherd's Voice

SJF • Easter 4c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.+

Last week our Scripture readings told us about people who went on to become leaders in the church getting off to an awfully inauspicious start. Peter and Paul, each in his own way, didn’t perceive Jesus when he was plainly evident to others. They had to be shaken up by God to open their eyes and see what was right in front of them. Paul, as you remember, missed God’s message because he was so full of himself, his head so full of his own knowledge, his own understanding — which was really misunderstanding — that he couldn’t hear or see anything new. Peter, on the other hand, seems to have gotten the message but didn’t know what to do with it — instead of spreading the Gospel he decided to go fishing.

Fortunately God knocked Paul from his high horse, and set Peter on the right road. Look at today’s reading from the Book of Acts, and remember that Paul is including himself among the people of Jerusalem and their leaders — as he had been at that time — who “did not... understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath.” Remember, as we heard last week, Paul spent his youth persecuting the church, hunting down Christians and delivering them up for trial and punishment. He started hi career as the coat-check boy for those who stoned Saint Stephen to death! Yet he’d heard the Scriptures week by week in the synagogue, heard, without understanding, the God about whom those words gave such powerful testimony.

Paul finally understood the words so often heard, and came to know the meaning behind them, and the One of whom they spoke. And Peter, too, became a changed man once Jesus got him to take his mind off his fishing tackle, and sent him out to feed the sheep, and to spread the Gospel.

Powerful things can happen to you when you let God into your life. Saint John the Divine was given a glimpse, a revelation, and he shared us with us: a glimpse, a revelation, of the ultimate destiny of those who hear and follow their heavenly shepherd, people from all over the world who have heard the saving word in many tongues, and who in John’s vision of heaven stand before the throne with palm branches, praising the Lord and the Lamb, who is their protector and their God. Secure in the place where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst — not even any sunburn — they rejoice forever because they have heard and followed him who is the Savior of the world.

+ + +

But what about those who refuse to hear, who don’t let God into their lives? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s a chilly winter day, at the feast of Dedication; which we might know better as Hanukkah. The people come to Jesus with the challenge, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus returns their challenge with a challenge equally pointed. “I have told you.” If ever there were a time for that appropriate, eloquent monosyllable, this would be it. Duh!

What more could they want? By this time in John’s Gospel John the Baptist has given his testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God, Jesus has changed water to wine at Cana of Galilee, he has cast the moneychangers from the court of the Gentiles in that very temple; He has promised that if the temple were torn down he would rebuild it in three days; he has fed a multitude on the mountain, with five barley loaves and two fish; he has healed the sick — a little boy in Capernaum, and right in Jerusalem a paralyzed man, and even more astoundingly a man born blind; and — especially in John’s Gospel— he’s taught and he’s taught and he’s taught. Yet after all of this, the people still say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Verily, verily, I say unto you, Duh! As Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.”

It reminds me of the young man in the movie who is tempted to go further with his new girlfriend than he knows he should, and who kneels in prayer in his bedroom. “Give me a sign, God,” he says. There’s a crash of thunder, the lights flash, the walls shake and pictures fall from their hooks and books from their shelves; and still looking up to heaven, the boy says, “Any sign!”

Just what does it take to hear the voice of God when God is speaking slowly and clearly in words of one syllable?

+ + +

Well, Jesus gives us the answer, and in words of one syllable: My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. (O.K., follow has two syllables.) But the message is clear.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The blessed ones, the ones who belong to the flock of Christ, hear the voice of their divine shepherd. Notice that doesn’t mean that they necessarily understand the shepherd, any more than ordinary earthly sheep understand their earthly human shepherd. They may not even know what a shepherd is, but — and this is the most important thing, as Jesus goes on to say — the shepherd knows them.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to understand God’s message to us. If that were the case I’d stop preaching right now! But we need to hear God first, before we try to understand, and trust that God knows who he is talking to! God does not dial wrong numbers!

People do, of course, and it’s a good example of how preconceptions — being full of yourself instead of being open to others, as was Saint Paul’s problem — can prevent you from hearing what is being said to you. Once I was working in the church office, and the phone rang. As always, I answered, “Good afternoon, St. James Church.” The person at the other end said, “Is this the Recreation Center?”

Now, if I’d really been swift I could have said something like, “Yes, we offer re-creation every Sunday morning at 11 a.m.” As it was, I just said, “No; this is St. James Church. The Rec Center is next door.” Of course, I’d said that the first time, but the person calling simply couldn’t believe they’d dialed the wrong number. Isn’t if funny how people won’t believe that you aren’t the person they wanted: I’m sure I’m not the only one here who has had to repeat several times that no, Juanita doesn’t live here. Well, in this case, the caller wanted the Recreation Center, they expected the Recreation Center, so when I said, “Good afternoon, St. James Church” they didn’t even hear the words.

But God’s sheep do hear the voice of their heavenly shepherd; and that is how our salvation begins. It is enough for us to begin by hearing, hearing without preconceptions, and in the true knowledge and trust that the one who calls us knows exactly who we are, knows us each by name. God don’t dial no wrong numbers! Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them.” And so we begin by hearing, and being known.

+ + +

And then, we follow. Yes, that’s the third essential two-syllable part of this morning’s word to us. The shepherd knows his sheep and calls his sheep, not for casual conversation, but for a high purpose: that they might follow him to the springs of the water of life, where every tear is wiped from their eyes, where they find shelter from the sun’s scorching heat, where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst. He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of his hand. What is his is his for ever.

This is what it means, beloved, to be counted among the flock of the great shepherd of the sheep. It is nothing less than life eternal. Thank God that we have heard the voice of the one who calls us; thank God that he knows us and has chosen us. And thank God that we have set our feet upon the path to follow him. Amidst the distractions and the shadows of this life, amidst the distractions and noise and busyness of our lives, may we always be ready to hear the voice of the one who knows us, and to follow him when he calls, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, April 05, 2010

By the Dawn's Early Light

SJF • Easter 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

It is an experience common to most of us, so common as barely to require comment, that things look different by the light of day as opposed to how they appear at night. Driving down a wooded country road at 50 miles an hour by day may seem quite leisurely — but that same road at that same speed in the dead of night may feel like a reckless thrill-ride. And speaking of wooded country roads, what child hasn’t learned that the gnarled old tree that looks so terrifying by night, is by day revealed to be nothing more than a harmless old tree. The light of day makes all the difference. We even have made the difference proverbial, by saying, “It’s like night and day” to mean almost complete opposition — far more different than “apples and oranges” or “chalk and cheese”!

+ + +

One day nearly 2,000 years ago a small group of women came to the tomb of a dear and beloved friend who had died a horrible death just two days before. He had been buried that Friday as the shadows lengthened and as the sun began to set — it had already been a day of strange and remarkable weather with clouds gathering through the afternoon so that the light of the sun was darkened even then. They watched from afar, and then as the hours passed and the friends beseeched the body from Pilate, that they might give it a decent burial, the women followed after at a distance, and saw to whom his body was commended and how his body was laid in the tomb as the darkness of night began to engulf the land. The Sabbath had begun. Then they went to prepare the spices and spent that Sabbath night and day in accord with the Law that commanded rest from all labors, and on into the second evening that ended that Sabbath day.

+ + +

But then, ah then! How different things appeared by the dawn’s early light, when they returned to the tomb the following morning. They had seen the stone set in place — only now it had been moved. They had seen only Joseph of Arimathea and the other disciples; now they saw two men in dazzling clothes — so dazzling that they terrified them! This is one time when even broad daylight had its terrors!

And the angels — for that is what they were — immediately challenged them with a question as astounding as their very presence: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The reason, of course, was simple: In the gathering shadows, they had seen the dead one laid there, had seen the tomb sealed, had seen the others walk away with their heads bowed, had walked away with their heads bowed themselves, mournful and sorrowful. They had prepared the spices in those evening hours and now they were back with them, to do with them what they would do for the dead: gently washing the body and sprinkling it with sweet-smelling herbs and spices.

By the fading light of that evening, that is what they had seen; but by the dawn’s early light none of it looked the same. As the angels assured them, the dead was dead no longer, but living; they gave them the message, short and sweet: “He is not here, but has risen.” Everything had changed in the light of that great dawn.

Never before or since has something looked so different between night and day; never before has something been so different between night and day! Never before have people so deeply saddened been given such cause for joy. It was truly night and day!

+ + +

What difference a day makes! Will this Easter Day 2010 make a difference for you? None of us here came to church this morning expecting a funeral — unlike the women who came to the tomb, we expected a celebration. And so we are having one.

But what about the rest of our lives — are we living in the twilight, or maybe even in the deeper shadows of night, or have we stepped into the light of day, the dawning light of new life in Christ? Are there things in your life like those gnarled old trees on a country road that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up in fear? Let the light of Christ shine on them and they will be shown to be just old trees after all.

Do things sometimes seem to you to be moving so fast that you have lost all control and you can’t be sure where you are heading, like a bouncing night-time ride down a country road, swerving and twisting in the late-night hours, startled by the high-beams and then plunged into shadow in confusion? Let the light of Christ shine upon your journey and be a lamp unto your feet, and that ride may be transformed from an agonizing and gutwrenching terror into a joyful pilgrimage walked in the way that Christ has gone before us — into new life, redeemed life, risen life.

+ + +

Evening and morning — they are as different as night and day! You may know that for the Jewish people the hour of sundown, the beginning of evening, is very important, particularly the evening that marks the beginning of the Sabbath, the division of ordinary time from that extraordinary day of rest. Knowing the hour of dawn is similarly important, for the offering of particular prayers of benediction and thanksgiving for the dawn of each new day.

Once, in order to test his pupils, a Rabbi asked them how they thought it best to tell when dawn’s earliest light had come. One suggested, “When you can tell from across a field if a beast is a dog or a sheep.” The Rabbi said that was not the best answer. “Some city folks cannot tell a dog from a sheep even at midday!” Another pupil offered, “When there is enough light to see if a tree is a fig tree or an apple tree.” “That is good,” the Rabbi said, “but not good enough, for some cannot tell an apple from a fig, or a myrtle from a cedar!” Another suggested, “When you can lay a black thread against a black cloth and see the thread against the cloth!” The Rabbi laughed, “Ah, Moishe the tailor knows something! But there is still a better way.” “What is it?” the students asked. The Rabbi paused, and said, “When you can look any man or woman in the face and know that you are looking into the face of a brother or sister. For if you cannot do that, if you cannot look at anyone and know they are your brother or sister, it is still night indeed.”

+ + +

The dawn’s early light of Easter gives us all the opportunity to look into each other’s faces and see, and know, and recognize each other as sisters and brothers, as children of one Father in heaven, who raised our Brother Jesus from the dead. This dawn, this day, this light makes all the difference. We need no longer be afraid of shadows. And more importantly, we need no longer be strangers one from another, in this dawn’s early light, but sisters and brothers all.

May we rejoice in that light not just today but every day for the rest of our lives and on into the life of the world to come, where we will join our Lord and Savior and Brother in the never-ending daylight of the everlasting Eastertide.+