The Sound of the Shepherd

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image courtesy of Ineke Kamps, Getty Images …. Psalm 23, John 10:22-30 …. Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Easter ….

During my years as associate pastor in Springfield, my job included coordinating an annual lecture series. One year, the series featured Dr. Robert Wuthnow, well-known sociologist of religion, and author of several books. Back in the 90s, it was not unusual to hear Dr. Wuthnow featured on National Public Radio or in the pages of the New York Times. A couple of professors at our local university were surprised that Wuthnow would come to Springfield — that is, until they learned that Wuthnow was the cousin of the church’s senior pastor, my supervisor.

During the weekend, I chauffeured Robert Wuthnow to and from venues. I was in the room for a few meals with him, and listened to family stories. I became well enough acquainted that it felt natural to stop by his office the following spring when I was in Princeton.

A few years later, I was in the audience at a pastor’s conference. A presenter at the podium quoted one of Wuthnow’s books. He introduced the quotation by saying, “As my good friend Bob ‘Vooth-now’ has written . . . .”

When I heard that phrase, I immediately suspected that the speaker was exaggerating. Perhaps he had consulted with Wuthnow by letter, or briefly met him at some event. But, if he really were a close friend of Bob Wuthnow, he would have known how to pronounce his name.

Just as the sound of a voice may reveal a true friend, so also may the sound of a voice may help us recognize spiritual authority. That’s the claim that Jesus makes, as recorded in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. He is in the outer court of the temple, engaged in one of the great discourses that so dominate the first half of this book of the Bible. “The Jews” may be the Pharisees with whom he has debated earlier, or perhaps other skeptical observers of his ministry.

The skeptics spend their time trying to trap Jesus. In responding to their latest harassing question, Jesus makes use of a metaphor introduced earlier in his Parable of the Good Shepherd. “You do not believe, because you are not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (NASB).

We like to think that if we had been present in Solomon’s Portico, we would have shaken our head in disgust at the Jews and sided enthusiastically with Jesus. But then, as now, some people listened to Jesus with a variety of assumptions that filtered out the voice of spiritual authority. Some expected a Messiah who would exercise military power. But Jesus certainly wasn’t assembling an army. Some expected a Messiah to confirm their traditions and reinforce their existing social structure. But Jesus challenged their traditions, and called them to a new social structure that he sometimes labeled “the kingdom of God.”

Discerning the sound of the shepherd isn’t always simple.

On Thursday, I traveled to Webster Groves with Donna Crider and Ray Daniels to participate in the spring assembly of our regional presbytery. We thank God that the presbytery’s lawsuit with schismatic BPC has been settled. We thank God that a newer and more flexible organization structure for the presbytery has been approved. But painful challenges remain.

At this meeting, the sixth version of a personnel plan to support mission and ministry was presented. It’s a plan that has been revised in light of declining gifts from congregations in the region. Some staff members feel their livelihood threatened. From my perspective as immediate past moderator, the process has felt like a deadly serious game of musical chairs, each staff member wondering, “When the music stops, will there be a place for me to sit down?” Several ideas about staff design have competed for support. No one is happy with the final plan.

When multiple authoritative voices compete for a hearing, when our ears are tuned by our unique experiences and expectations, discerning the sound of the shepherd is complicated business.

So how can we be sure we really are following Christ’s call? How can we know that voice beckoning us down the path is really the sound of the Good Shepherd?

I’ve thought about those questions this week. I’ve thought about how we must be engaged in the study of Scripture, and remember that it is the standard for our faith and practice. When we study scripture, we’re developing a common language for discussing and evaluating the voices we hear. I’ve thought about how we must relate to God through prayer, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we pray, we’re practicing the kind of openness that allows us to hear voices other than our own. I’ve thought about the Presbyterian conviction that God’s will in best discerned in groups of faithful Christians, rather than by individuals working alone. When we work together as a group, we check personal hearing against the hearing of others. That’s especially important for me to remember when the plan that I think would do the most to create health and harmony is the plan ignored.

I’ve also wondered if part of the problem in discerning the sound of the shepherd is fear. Fear of the unknown can feed a desire to know every detail about the journey before we step out and follow, and usually that kind of advance detail is impossible to provide.

Michael Lindvall quotes William Willimon, who writes about an Eastern Orthodox priest invited to deliver a lecture on the creeds at Yale Divinity School. At the end of the lecture, an earnest student asked, “Father Theodore, what can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?” The priest looked confused. “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, you can learn it by heart.”

“No, you don’t understand,” continued the student, “what am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed – like the Virgin Birth?” The priest still looked confused. “You just say it. It will come to you eventually.”

The frustrated student now pleaded, “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?”

“It’s not your creed, young man!” said the priest. “It’s our creed. Keep saying it, for heaven’s sake! Eventually, it may come to you. For some, it takes longer than others. How old are you? Twenty-three? Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are a lot of things that you don’t know at twenty-three. Eventually, it may come to you.”[1]

In this story, I’m more like the student than the priest. That’s why I appreciate this perspective of someone not steeped in our culture of skepticism and doubt. His words help me recognize that we’ll never know much about Jesus, or any leader, from a distant hearing. I won’t know everything about a doctrinal creed or a strategic plan created in a community until we actually live it out. It’s in the following that many questions are answered. It’s in the following that the relationship is deepened. The steps to growing are revealed in the going.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

[1] Michael L. Lindvall, A Geography of God: Exploring the Christian Journey, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007, p. 19.

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~ by JohnH1962 on April 19, 2016.