2nd May, 2004

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sermon preached by: Fr. Mark D. Stuart

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
(John 10:27)

The world was stunned in 1997 when the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had successfully cloned the first mammal from an adult cell; a sheep named “Dolly.” She was affectionately christened with that name by the stockmen who helped in the process in honor of Dolly Parton; because the cloned cell was a mammary cell. When she died prematurely last year of complications usually resulting from old age, the scientific and ethical controversy from such radical experiments heated up; leading many to underscore that one should not mess with Mother Nature.

Nevertheless, her stuffed remains were place in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum last April.

Although images of shepherds and sheep fill the Scriptures, Christian iconography and predominate our lectionary texts and music for today, I suspect most modern folk have a tough time identifying themselves as sheep. Except for hearing about Dolly most of us are far removed from sheep; we also believe that the term has taken on a negative connotation. To describe someone as a “sheep” in 2004 is an insult! Images of them being aimless, being blindly obedient, or passive, helpless dumb creatures headed to the shearer or butcher; or fast food for Wiley Coyote does not make for a comfortable metaphor.

The qualities we aspire to in today’s world are definitely “unsheep-like” : highly educated, self-directed, goal-driven, entrepreneurial, and validated by high achievement. Consider animal qualities we admire and wish in emulate through the mascots of sports teams; we find: falcons, panthers, bears, tigers, lions, bulls, wolves, jaguars, buffalos, my favorite canine breed, the Husky, and even a jayhawk and a badger… but never sheep! No way do we seek the sheep’s reputation of following without question, having no mind of one’s own, or expecting someone else to take care of us! As Anglicans, if we ever use the traditional Rite I confession of sin, we are reminded what miserable creatures we are by having “erred and strayed like lost sheep…”

Despite this post-resurrection liturgical season, our Gospel lesson today relates back to a pre-crucifixion event when Jesus is walking in the Temple precincts and is taunted and provoked by his skeptical detractors: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah. tell us plainly.” Like many people today, they want a plain black and white answer; not Jesus’ invitation to live in mystery. He offers His words, His deeds, His compassionate person, His sacramental presence, but that is not enough. They want an iron-clad guarantee. They say that trust is too “iffy” and faith unsettling; they want it all spelled out. Why doesn’t Jesus just produce His well-framed “Messiah” degree from the University of Jerusalem and settle the question once and for all?! But, of course, Jesus turns the question back on them, saying that there already is plenty of evidence… the real issue, He tells them, is their own belief.

This is the question the Gospel brings to us this morning. Of course we believe, don’t we? And isn’t this a rather peculiar time to ask the question? Here we are in the midst of the joyous Easter season of belief. But the question continues to nag at the back corners of our minds: how deeply do we really believe… and how?

Our Western consciousness has been formed by the notion that belief is based on evidence. The scientific method depends on the formulation of an hypothesis, which we then test by experimentation. If the data from the experiment confirms the hypothesis, we may be reasonably certain it is true. If the evidence fails to confirm the hypothesis, we must revise it or create a whole new theory. A belief is firmly rooted in observation and evidence collected in support of it.
St. John concludes, however, that for the group to whom our Lord speaks, even this will not be enough; for even observing the testimony of His works is not proof enough for them.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus proclaims, “I know them and they follow me.” “Lord hear our prayer” is the familiar petition used in our prayers at Mass. But as a matter of fact, God has no trouble hearing our prayer. There is nothing wrong with God’s hearing. God has no need for a hearing aid. We’re the ones who need the hearing aid when it comes to hearing or listening to God’s voice. And the most obvious listening aid is to pay attention.

Have you ever noticed how your animal companions tune in to important sounds? Bob and I can have the TV on, the stereo, or any other combination of external noise; but the minute we go to open a can when we’re preparing dinner, the cats will immediately awake from a sound sleep and rush to begging position in the kitchen hoping for a tasty morsel! Or, despite all the traffic and noise of the city; when we drive home the cats can distinguish the sound of our Jeep and will be waiting to greet us!

Once there was a young man who lived in central Kansas and he liked to drive his sports car very fast in the wide open spaces. In those days, the speed limit was still 55 mph; which he thought was completely absurd, so he purchased a radar detector to alert him to lurking patrolmen and speed traps. Whenever a radar signal was intercepted, the detector lit up wildly and produced a certain high-pitched audible sound, so that he had just a split second to hit the break and slow down as much as possible to avoid a speeding ticket. The funny thing was that if he had the radio or tape deck on and the same note was hit in a song playing; without thinking, out of instinctive response he would immediately hit the break.

Well, that’s a lot like what Jesus is talking about; it is not about turning into sheep, per se. It’s about learning to hear the sound of God amidst all the noisy distractions of our lives. When we become fine-tuned to His voice, our response to Him will be instinctive and He will lead us. Those who do not give God a chance to be heard, who are not alert or learn the sound of His voice, don’t have a clue when He is speaking or trying to lead them.

Many of you may have been just as amused as I was last Sunday when I looked at the anthem printed in the service leaflet and read “Christ Our Password” Fr. Davies and I had quite a chuckle over that; and as I was just about to ponder where in the world David Strouse had come up that anthem, I realized it was a typo. Nevertheless, there certainly is truth in that inadvertent slip of the spellcheck and I pondered the profound reality of “Christ Our Password” throughout the week.

As a young teenager I discovered a wonderful book I loved so much that I read it every year for many years. It wasn’t until much later that the talent of Peter Jackson brought to life J. R. R. Tolkien’s amazing story of Lord of the Rings to an audience largely comprised of those not even eating solid food at the time I first found myself immersed in the saga.

Some of you may remember not long after the fellowship of the ring set off from Rivendell on their sacred quest, they approached the mountain range of the great Mt. Caradhras. In their attempt to cross the pass, a harrowing blizzard defeated their efforts. Reluctantly following Gandalf’s advice that the only way to continue would have to be under the mountains through the Mines of Moria, the fellowship made its way through the valley to the foreboding gates. At first invisible to the eye, upon the rising of the moon, the outlines of the entrance with Elven script began to become legible. Only Gandalf could read the ancient words of the Elder Days which gave the key to passage: “Speak, friend, and enter.” Clearly, some secret words would cause the gates to open and for some time Gandalf tried many words and spells in many languages of Middle Earth, with no success. Matters were becoming more desperate with the wolves howling and something fearful slithering in the slimy pool right before the secure gates in the rock face of the mountain. Finally, Gandalf sprang up laughing with glee, “I have it!” he cried, picked up his staff, approached the doors and in a clear voice spoke the Elvish word for “friend” and they opened! As the inscription read, “Speak friend and enter,” the password was simple and clear all along! Well, that is just like “Christ our Password.”

We can become perplexed and doubtful when the answer is really quite simple and right before our eyes the whole time!

It is our choice to attune our hearing to the voice of the Good Shepherd. It is our choice to believe not through empirical signs and complex theologies, but through the clear Love of the Christ, who is our password to fullness of life. It is a choice that that calls us to live in distinctive ways apart from shallow standards the culture sets as priorities; yet urges us to invite the rest of the world to join us, to hear the voice of God. This is the choice each of us will carry with us as we leave Mass today, the choice to live each day with faith that is a radical trust.

 

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