Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Apr. 30, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Apr 30, 2023 in Easter, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 30, 2023

Worrying the Sheep is an Offence!” reads a sign at the gate at the bottom of the Glastonbury Tor of St. Michael’s Church Tower. I could only guess at what it meant to “worry” sheep — given their size and how many were mama sheep with babes, I was more worried by them. All the way climbing up the Tor, (a Celtic word for ‘hill’) I saw these sheep meandering or lounging about, noting my coming and going with complete passivity. Where was their shepherd? Being one the historic sites of Christendom, and located between the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the Chalice Well, and amidst small clusters of sheep and lambs, “The Good Shepherd” filled my thoughts. 

I did try talking to them. They didn’t listen or even move. If I took more than a couple steps towards them, I got the ‘both eyes on me’ look, and more wariness than interest in following. I was not the right voice, didn’t know their names (tag numbers didn’t help a bit). They let me pass uncomplainingly, but no following. Not even with their eyes. I’m not that kind of shepherd I guess. The piece of this gospel that always strikes a chord for me is the strong connection between shepherd and the sheep who know his voice. Between sheep and the shepherd who can call them by name. There is a reciprocity here that I couldn’t have on that hillside. It’s a relationship which goes beyond one’s ability to force or coerce the sheep, which goes so far as to let the shepherd presume they will follow, to trust that those who recognize his call, their names spoken in his voice, will come willingly. Do they know the shepherd cannot make the weather be fine or freezing? Or make the grass be soft and tender instead of dry and weedy? Probably not, and they follow their shepherd anyway because he calls them and they have learned to trust he will provide. 

We know this isn’t about sheep, and so did the Pharisees (or Jewish authorities) who Jesus spoke to. This is about God and about us. It follows right after Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind, and they were trying to figure out if he was calling them blind. It sounds like he’s pointing out a tendency towards being deaf to God’s voice, or at best, guilty of selective listening. We hear, “Jesus used this figure of speech [allegory] with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” I suspect a bit of humor is being inserted here, that the Pharisees did not follow what Jesus was saying to them — about sheep who will not follow a stranger, for not knowing his voice. It isn’t that they don’t comprehend the metaphor; Psalm 23 was part of their scriptures, and the shepherd was plenty familiar as an image for God, or sheep for Israel. 

It’s our psalm today as well, and whether we pray it by reading or singing or chanting, we know it’s familiar beauty and the comforting voice of the psalmist. Last week I spoke to someone who’d been praying with that psalm, and concluded the part most needed and which really said it all was, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It is as if all of those promising faith-stirring lines could be reduced to that one stellar verse; The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Those words were like Jesus’ voice, and this person was recognizing that, following him and glad for the reassurance of the voice of truth. We cannot be driven to do this, we have to choose to follow Jesus’ way.

We gladly follow even if it isn’t easy, tell us we have to or try to force us and we’re more like the sheep I encountered at St. Michael’s Tor. Watching but not moving, not going, and not about to be forced to do so. Have you ever known someone (or been someone perhaps) who was shaped by a religious authority using their power in this way? It’s crippling and often something that forever scars a person. It isn’t a way of love, it’s a way of fear or control. It isn’t life-giving as much as it is aversion-inducing. Religion isn’t the only area we find ourselves feeling driven or choosing to follow, aware of the thief or bandit who come to take, kill, destroy, or the strangers with unknown voices, and the shepherd who loves and protects and calls us. That’s a lot of voices vying for our attention! There will always be potent competition for our fidelity and faithfulness. Some come honestly by the gate and some sneak in. Can we see and hear them for what they are? What other voice lures our attention or vies for our allegiance? Our bandits might be overlong work hours, possessiveness, distraction (by social media anyone?), self-doubt, frenzied busyness, procrastination… I see myself in all of these and more. What are yours? And, which thieves and bandits have you managed not to listen to? 

Each day brings more questions for us, more options, decisions and promises – both true and false ones. Each day some would-be wall-jumper calls to us, ready with answers, but are they ours? God is present in our questioning, even if less flashy. We need to cultivate internal stillness to listen to God’s voice, to hear it within. Our ears prick up and its like that song we can’t stop humming. 

I might hear The Shepherd’s voice through something one of you says or does, certainly in the words of the Prayerbook or Scripture. We may hear Jesus call to us through art, music, nature, or a loving touch, the presence of someone who understands. The soul responds as if hearing the pitch made just to know the voice of Divine Love. We all hear it in some way—how have you? I love the ringing of our lambs bells each year in Advent, and I wonder if that distinctive sound is akin to the Good Shepherd knowing which one of us is following closely, or who is wandering or lost. It’s comforting and signals we’re following him together. It is in the peal of the Memorial Bell for me too, throughout Easter, calling out to any within earshot, as if to say ‘you’re invited to follow the Good Shepherd too!’

That’s beautiful and joyful, and it can be hard to take notice in our culture. Struggling in so much oppositional or polarizing energy makes us long to decide once and for all who is the enemy, who is the hireling, who is right or wrong, casting all as extreme as if to mark them as such. How often do you heard an elected official reported as saying something wonderfully uniting across the aisle? Grabbing attention and headlines to pose as a leader who merely wins, or a corporation who dominates market sales, —these seem to outrank being a follower of Jesus. He is the embodiment of perfect sacrificial love, for you and for me. No one else comes close. We can follow him who leads us through the gate, whose eternal life doesn’t follow the polls or the market or the ever-changing trends, follow the one who is the gate, —or we can outsource our listening and decision-making to bandits who learned to say all the right things, even as they climb over the sheepfold of our souls. 

No one can lead us without our following and what we are following is his love. It fills a void in us that nothing else can. We hope to discern and have the courage to follow our Shepherd, even though we may fear what a sacrifice of love will cost us. He’s been there before us though, and will continue with us. Leading us as the psalmist says to those green pastures and still waters. Reviving our souls and guiding us, for, “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Saved. This term is sometimes hard for people. The word translated as “saved” is elsewhere translated as to be made whole, to be healed, or made well. The word also means to be rescued, preserved, delivered out of danger to safety. Now listen to how it’s used in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles; “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They did this “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Healed, saved, made whole. Might not any of these apply and be welcome news for followers of Christ? Ultimately each fulfills what he promised, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It is ours to quiet ourselves and listen deeply.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.

Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, HarperOne, NY, NY. 2010

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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