By The Rev. J.C. Austin
Having lived in New York City for almost twenty years, I came across plenty of celebrities out on the street, in restaurants or stores, and so on. Part of the code of being a real New Yorker is that you pretend not to notice or even recognize them, but you still do. The interesting thing is, at least for me, I often don’t see a famous actor so much as I hear them.
I literally ran into Al Pacino once, or rather he ran into me, as he tried to dash out of a limousine into the stage door of the Broadway theatre I happened to be walking by and where he was performing in a show. But I didn’t see him. First, I felt him as he sort of bounced off of me; I’m a pretty big guy, and while he may dominate every frame of a movie he’s in, but he’s only about 5’7’’ and he actually seems smaller than that.
So I turned to see if this person was ok and/or trying to pick my pocket; looking at him, I had a vague sense of familiarity, but it wasn’t until I heard him say, “Sorry” in that distinctive gravelly voice that I recognized who he was, and by then he had ducked around me and into the theater. And one of the most surreal experiences of my life was standing in line at my neighborhood deli early one Sunday morning.
I was picking up a bagel on my way in to church services, not paying attention to who was in line in front of me, when I suddenly heard the distinctively deep and menacing voice of Darth Vader, the classic villain from Star Wars, ordering a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a buttered roll with a regular coffee, because the actor who voiced that character, James Earl Jones, was the person in front of me in line. (And I entertained myself for days after that by imagining him using classic Darth Vader lines in that context, like him realizing that they forgot the butter on the roll and him saying in that voice, “you have failed me for the last time…”)
Our voices are one of the most distinctive things about us as human beings in general, though; not quite a fingerprint, but close enough. And the more we know someone, the more distinctive their voice becomes to us. If you go to your fiftieth high school reunion and you haven’t seen some of those people in years, even decades, you might hear people talking before you see them and say to yourself, “I know that voice,” whether it comes from someone who was a friendly teammate or a bitter enemy, and even if you would have never recognized them from their physical appearance.
Back before Caller ID (and, for that matter, when people used their phones primarily as phones), one of the milestones of a friendship or a relationship was when you could call someone and say, “Hey, it’s me,” rather than announcing your name, because they would know exactly who you were just from the sound of your voice. And a parent can filter out the voices of fifty other children on the playground that are all shouting at the same time to hear their child calling out to them.
And not even just the voice, but the subtleties of its tone: they know the difference between their child screaming because they are playing a game, or because they are throwing a tantrum, or because they are hurt, even when nobody else does. And a child, similarly, can hear their parents calling their name through almost any cacophony, even if they pretend not to h
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.” The first time I traveled to Israel/Palestine, I remember actually seeing a shepherd moving his flock through the hills outside of Bethlehem, and he was doing it the same way shepherds have done so for thousands of years in that area. Unlike in Europe, where shepherds have traditionally driven their flocks from behind, shepherds in the Middle East lead their flocks from the front, with the sheep knowing and following the voice of their shepherds.
If two flocks cross each other’s path and get mixed up, the shepherds don’t wade into the middle and start trying to sort out the sheep; they each go on a little ways in the direction they were going and call out to the sheep, which all follow the voice of their own shepherd because they know it. And because the shepherd knows their sheep, they know when all of them are accounted for and can start moving the flock out again, all with their voice.
The metaphor of God as a shepherd is a common one in Scripture because it so richly captures the dynamic between God and God’s people. Sheep are easy prey without a shepherd; they have no real protection against predators and the domesticated ones, at least, struggle even with the most aspects of self-preservation if left to their own devices. In fact, there was a brief video that went viral earlier this week that demonstrates this in a nutshell. Here it is: http://bit.ly/sheepinditch.
It’s the gleeful leap that lands her back in the ditch that is truly priceless; honestly, we could spend the rest of the sermon just unpacking the metaphorical layers of that in terms of human nature, Christian faith, and church life. The truly good shepherd, though, is not simply patient and attentive to the sheep in their basic needs, though, but protects them from predators. In this case, of course, Jesus is linking his own sacrificial death with the truly good shepherd who would lay down his life to protect the sheep from marauding predators because they belong to him, while those who are hired hands would simply say, “they’re not paying me enough to go toe-to-toe with a wolf!” and run away.
In the context of this story in chapter 10 of John’s gospel, the hired hands seem to be a reference to the group of Pharisees with whom he’s been in an argument since chapter 9 because he cured a man of blindness on the Sabbath, which they criticize as breaking the Jewish Law (this, by the way, was a larger religious argument among Jewish scholars at the time; Jesus was not being innovative, but aligning his ministry with those who argued that healing takes precedence over Sabbath prohibitions on work).
Being a hired hand isn’t inherently a problem; rather, the problem Jesus is highlighting is that hired hands are just inherently less committed to protecting the sheep than the shepherd to whom the sheep actually belong, and at some point will trade the safety of the sheep for their own self-protection. Jesus, as the truly good shepherd to whom the sheep belong, will lay down his life to protect the sheep.
So far, everything seems pretty straightforward, right? Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and we are the sheep who know Jesus by his voice and are known and nurtured and protected by him. That’s good stuff, right? There’s a reason this passage is so popular in Christian worship and preaching, after all. But there are a couple of problems that we often ignore or overlook, if we’re being honest. The first problem is that, while Jesus’ voice is distinctive and easy to recognize, we still really struggle to hear and know it, or even to distinguish it from the voice of our own will or desires.
Did you hear the story this past week about the couple in Florida who decided to hold their lavish wedding at the venue of their dreams, which, as it turns out, was a private mansion that they did not own, rent, or even have legal access to? It does sound like quite the wedding venue: a 16,000-ft mansion listed for sale at $5.6 million that includes a massive outdoor deck with a grotto pool, a custom-built pond, and rolling lawns, and a classic ballroom and a two-story “gentlemen’s bar” on the inside.
Apparently, the couple discovered it by posing as potential buyers to get a tour of it. They then proposed renting it for their wedding instead, as it was vacant; the owner, who lives in another house on the property, refused. But if it ended there, it wouldn’t be a story, would it? The couple had decided it was God’s will for them to be married there, and they were not about to let this owner of the house interfere with God’s will. So they sent out invitations for the wedding and a two-day series of celebratory receptions at the mansion, calling it their “dream home and estate.”
On the day of the wedding, the owner was awakened by them trying to get access to the property to set up for the wedding, and he ended up having to call the police to get them removed, saying on the 911 call, “They keep harassing me, calling me. They say they’re having a wedding here and it’s God’s message. I don’t know what’s going on. All I want is for it to stop.”
On one level, the story is kind of hilarious. I mean, the sheer audacity of sending out invitations to a lavish two-day wedding celebration at a stranger’s house who has specifically refused to allow you to do so, sounds like something out of offbeat TV show that specializes in cringe comedy, complete with the scene of the owner trying to explain the bizarre circumstances unfolding on the day of the wedding to a dubious 911 operator.
The thing is, though, it’s simply a farcical version of a much deeper and dangerous, even toxic, theology. Justifying outrageous behavior that violates the needs, rights, and dignity of others because we’ve received a message from God about it is the spiritual ditch that we leap into when we no longer know the difference between the voice of the Good Shepherd leading us to places of safety and well-being, and the voices of our own worst instincts and insecurities.
The Florida wedding mansion debacle is on the absurd side of a much larger spectrum that includes saying that it is God’s message that Black people and people of color and LGBT people and disabled people are less than fully human; that it is God’s message that we don’t have to care about or for poor people because if they just worked harder and made better decisions they wouldn’t be poor; that it is God’s message that anybody who thinks anything different from us in terms of theological doctrines or Biblical interpretations is not a “real Christian.”
It’s almost laughable to try to reconcile any of those things with the actual voice of Jesus Christ, or at least it would be if they and so many other similar examples had not done such massive damage to human well-being and relationships and communities and even whole races and nations and peoples.
Which leads us to the other problem that we tend to overlook or ignore in this passage, which is actually not a problem in itself, but a problem because we often struggle so much to accept it as good news. And that is that it is not the sheep who decide who belongs in the flock, but the shepherd. And the only criteria for being in the flock is whether the shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep knows the voice of the shepherd and follows it.
That’s it. Not how the sheep looks. Not where the sheep came from or what it was doing before it joined the flock. Not what the sheep thinks about who gets to be in the flock, or who should stand where, or how they should eat the food they are given by the shepherd, or especially which sheep are worthy of being protected by the shepherd, even to the point of laying down his life for them, and which sheep are not.
It’s telling that, in reading this passage, a great deal of energy is often expended speculating on who the other sheep are that Jesus talks about not being from this fold. Are they Gentiles (non-Jews)? Another Christian community with different beliefs? People in a different geographic region from Judea? Neither Jesus nor the text itself give any indication at all.
Which I think is actually the point. It doesn’t matter who the sheep from the other fold are, or where they are, or what they are like. All that matters is that they also belong to Jesus, and listen to his voice, and are part of the same flock that we are, following the Good Shepherd; because if that’s enough for Jesus, it’s more than enough for us.
And the good news is that it is: it is more than enough for Jesus and us, more than enough for Christ as the Good Shepherd to always come after any of his sheep, including us, and pull us out of whatever ditch we may have gotten into, whether we jumped in ourselves or were pushed in by others, and invite us to follow his voice back into the flock once more, until we are all safe at home together in the fold.