The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017
Like many of you, I spend a lot of time in my car. I’m driving to church, to Camp Allen, to the hospital. I’m off to the gym, headed downtown, going to pick up Lydia from school. My car is a sort of home away from home. And, you know, it gets a little lonely sometimes with just me and my thoughts. So I’ve become a big fan of podcasts. Podcasts are like internet radio shows that you can download onto your phone and play through your car. I listen to podcasts about politics, sports, economics. I listen to podcasts about preaching, about Jesus, about all sorts of things. At the risk of a shameless advertisement, I even co-host a podcast with my priest buddy Geoff Evans. It’s called, “Two Priests in a Pod.” Our tagline is two priests, one gospel, zero talent.
So throughout the day, driving in my car, I hear many voices. Voices challenging me, asking me to consider this or that. Voices that say the other voices are dumb, or wrong, or evil.
My podcast feed is a microcosm of the world we live in; many voices from many people. Calling us to do this or to do that. Believe this or believe that. Voices saying this is wrong and this is right. Voices scrambling for our attention.
Admittedly, this world of constant noise is awfully confusing. Who do we listen to? Who can we trust? Which are the good voices, which are the evil voices? Am I just stuck in my own echo chamber, listening to the voices that I already think are right? Am I listening to the Holy Spirit, am I listening to Jesus, or is that just my own voice? Perhaps more than ever, the question of which voices we are listening to is vitally important for our health, and for the health of our society.
We gather this morning to hear the one true voice. The voice that cuts through all the noise, the voice that gives life. It’s that voice that we must listen to even as the others voice try to drown it out. It’s the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter in the Episcopal Church is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and we hear this image from the Gospel of John; Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This week I’ve been reading up on first century shepherding practices. Yes, there are books written about such things. In the time of Jesus it was the practice that many different shepherds would all keep their flocks in the same sheepfold at night. It was a cost-sharing scheme. The lower your overhead on sheepfolds, the higher your profit margin on shearing. Many flocks, many shepherds, one sheepfold.
Then, in the morning, the gate would be opened, the sheep would start walking out, and the shepherds would start calling to their own sheep. Each shepherd would call their own flock to go off grazing. And even though sheep are pretty dumb, the sheep knew the voice of their own shepherd. And as the sheep would leave the sheepfold, the flocks would separate as the sheep followed the voice of their shepherd.
Not so different from today. I hate to call us sheep, but everyday as we wake up, as we leave our homes, as our turn on our TVs, and radios, all the shepherds start calling out. We are bombarded with messages, advertisements, and ploys for our attention. A world full of sound of fury.
I try every morning, while I’m still lying in bed, before I fire up my first podcast for the day, to stop and remember the sound of my good shepherd. Like really, when I’m lying in bed, I try to intentionally open my heart to Jesus. To remember the sound of that voice. And in the midst of all the competing messages that will shout out to me during the day, I remember that two things make the voice of Jesus different.
Try this for a week. Just after your alarm clock has gone off, while you’re lying in bed in the morning, remember that the voice of Jesus is the voice of love. When you hear love, you are hearing the voice of Jesus. When you hear hate, bigotry; when you hear self-congratulation or a puffed up ego; when you hear disparaging remarks or disregard for the poor – you are hearing the voice of the other shepherds. The voice of thieves and bandits who only wish to steal, kill, and destroy.
And here’s the catch – sometimes that voice of love does not sound very appealing. Sometimes the voice of that Good Shepherd is speaking a difficult truth. It will always be spoken in love, but it will be hard to hear. This is why we so often listen to the other voices, this is why we run after false gods and listen to the hired hands. Because they will also speak words that are easy on our ears. The message of love, the message of the cross, the voice of Jesus; sometimes it is difficult to listen to these things.
And when you’re lying in bed before the day has begun, remember that the voice of Jesus is always calling you forward. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd brings out his own and the sheep follow the Good Shepherd. This is critical. The Good Shepherd does not push. The Good Shepherd is not behind the sheep, driving them ahead. The Good Shepherd goes ahead, leading the way, and the sheep willingly follow because they love the shepherd.
We follow where Jesus goes not because we have to, but because we want to. Not out of fear or guilt, but out of love. Because we know Jesus. This is a fundamental truth of Christianity: there is no coercion in the gospel. Jesus loves us as a free gift. And everything we do in return for Jesus is also a free gift. No strings attached. When you hear the other voices trying to prod you along, pushing you from behind, trying to use scare tactics – those are thieves and bandits. Run away when you hear voices that say, “if you follow Jesus, then Jesus will love you.” There is no quid pro quo with God. There is no this for that. God loves you as a free gift. A free gift. We should not follow Jesus in hopes of getting something out of it. We should not come to Church hoping to get something out of it. Our life with God is not a transactional experience.
And in turn, we love our neighbors as a free gift. We love our neighbors, not hoping to get something out of them in the future, but simply to love them in the present.
When you are leaving the sheepfold in the morning to go about your daily grazing, when many shepherds are calling to you and you’re not sure which to turn; remember two things about the voice of the good shepherd. First, listen for the voice of love. And second, remember that the voice of God is always going ahead of us, leading us forward, loving us as a free gift.
Because the other shepherds, the thieves and bandits, are in abundance. They are trying to drown out Jesus. They are bullies, coercing us for the sake of evil. The way I read the tea leaves is that the other voices – the voices of fear, anger, disregard for the poor – will only grow louder in the days to come. I do not find this depressing or frightening, rather I find it invigorating. It means that our voice, the voice of the Church, will stand out even more. The voice of Jesus will become even more different from the other shepherds. I believe that our voice, the message of unearned, undeserved, absolutely free love, can become the Siren song, piercing through the background noise. I believe that each of you, this whole Church, will join our voices with Jesus, and speak only of love.