Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Do any of you know what a dharma talk is? It’s from the Buddhist tradition – and it means teaching. It’s basically the Buddhist version of a Christian sermon. Not too long ago, I was listening to a dharma talk via podcast (Zencast.org) about knowing. What is knowing? What does it mean to know something? That word appears several times in our readings and prayers this morning, so what does it mean in those contexts. And do we assume since we’re the ones gathered in church that we are also the ones ‘in the know’ when it comes to God?
Well here’s the story – Steve and Sally lived together in an apartment and one night Steve said to Sally, “hey, let’s invite my mom over for dinner!”
“Really?” Sally said. “Ok, that’s fine by me – let’s say Tuesday”
Steve calls his mom, “Hey mom! What are you doing on Tuesday? I was wondering if you wanted to come over and have dinner with me and my roommate Sally?”
“Honey.” Steve’s mom replied, “Don’t you mean your girlfriend? I’d love to come over for dinner I’ve been dying to meet her.”
“Mom, I’ve told you 100x! Sally is not my girlfriend. She’s my roommate!”
“Ok, ok, Steve – whatever you say – I’d love to accept your invitation for Tuesday and join you and your ROOMMATE for dinner.”
So – it’s Tuesday – Steve and Sally make pork chops – it’s delicious – they have a lovely time. About a week later Sally says to Steve – have you seen the spatula lately? Steve says, what are you talking about? The spatula, Sally says, this is going to sound totally weird but the last time I saw the spatula was when your mom came over for dinner – could you just ask her about it? “Are you saying you think my mom stole the spatula?” “Just saying I haven’t seen it since then.” “Fine, I’ll ask her.”
“Mom – hey. This is going to sound totally crazy, but I have to ask you – any chance you took our spatula? Take it? Don’t be ridiculous I didn’t take it. But I can tell you this. If you and Sally really were just roommates you’d both know exactly where that spatula is – just like I know exactly what is going on between the two of you. So, why don’t you and your girlfriend go into her room, look under her pillow, and get your spatula.
When you know something you know it, right? (Mother’s possibly being even being more in the know than the rest of us) But that’s the “truth” of the story is that knowing is intuitive, it’s in the gut. It’s that Supreme Court justice quote from decades ago – I can’t always define it, but I know it when I see it.
This morning we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” We hear in the epistle – supposedly written by the same person who wrote John’s gospel – “We know love by this that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
And together we opened our service by praying – Grant, O God, that when we hear Jesus’ voice we may know him who calls each of us by name and follow where he leads.”
So how do we know the voice of the Good Shepherd when we hear it? My personal and shared experiences lead me to believe that most of us, most of the time – would like to know a lot more. Most of the time we’d like to hear a much louder voice, with crystal clear directions telling us what to do, when to do it, how to do it and who to do it with. So what is this knowing that God is asking us to follow?
John’s gospel – and John’s letter – are both so…what’s the word…nice, digestible, easily taken in. Our images of the Good Shepherd are always with Jesus – a blonde haired, blue-eyed (yet somehow Middle Eastern) Jesus – cradling a baby sheep in his arm with some more gathered around his feet. And John’s letter – with its – little children, beloved, let us love one another. It sounds so easy – almost trite – as if all there is to being a Christian is simply getting along, being nice and always, above all, being in agreement.
That’s not what’s happening in the context of either scripture passage. Both the gospel and the letter were written to communities of the world, communities deeply divided over the issues of their time. When, I ask you, has there ever been a time when a community (especially a faith community) was all of one mind for very long? People were fighting – viciously – over the age old question (specifics aren’t really necessary) of who was right. Who was in the right group, who was doing the right things, who was believing the right things? Who were the ones really in the know?
And in the gospel and letter – the writer tries to get the listeners to rise above the immediate conflict – encourages the group, and individuals, to see a bigger picture, take a longer view, particularly one that sees past their own needs towards the needs of the wider group. The writers don’t specifically describe the problems (although the wolf and hired hands of the gospel imply not everyone in the current flock is really in it for the long haul) – the writers direct our gaze away from the problem towards the answer. Towards the one who says I AM the Good Shepherd. Just like he said, I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Light of the World. I AM the Vine.
I AM the way, the truth and the life. Both readings point, not to the problem, not telling them what to do so much as how – look to the way, look to the truth, look to Jesus to know what to do.
Josh quipped, not too long ago, in a sermon about when you don’t know the answer to something in church – just say, Jesus. If we don’t “know” the voice of God in our lives – if we’re struggling to hear the call, the direction, the answer to a problem we face – if we are struggling to know what to do – the Good Shepherd really does provide some concrete direction.
I AM the light of the world – which choice shines light on the issues, the reality of a situation? Which path is about letting light in – versus keeping myself or others in the dark?
I AM the Bread of Life – I AM the Resurrection – which action leads to new life? What words, lead to restoration and reconciliation – what feeds literally and what feeds healthy relationships between people?
I think the knowing that we hear about today – is partly intuitive – but it is also something we chose to strengthen through practice. That’s why scripture is a living text. For the human stories – including Christ’s – tell the story again and again – of broken relationships, broken people, broken communities being restored – being reconciled – being brought to new life – through the words and actions – of ordinary people trying to follow the voice that leads to life.
But sometimes our personal situations are too much. Presently our city’s situation, as we join the long list of cities struggling with systemic issues in our stratified society seem so overwhelming we might believe there is nothing we can do. But one other scripture this morning points to practical knowledge for us. Psalm 23 – that well-known psalm – written by someone on a journey – who describes complete trust in God’s presence – complete trust that no matter what – God walks with us through the worst we could ever know.
God is there when we feel surrounded by those who don’t like us. And God wants us to know – that God will find a way to lead us to restoration, to rest and healing. God wants us to know – that goodness and mercy are before and behind us always. God wants us to know that we abide in God and God abides in us – forever and forever and forever.
If we practice that knowing, if we pray that knowing – as often and as faithfully as we can – we will know the voice of the Good Shepherd wherever we may go. Amen.
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks