Last year, in September, Kerry and I moved to a different house. I had no idea what it would be like moving from a home we had owned for 22 years. We had a garage building, a large attic and a basement--- all of them full of 2 decades’ worth of things had I intended to get around to one day. That one day came due all at one time.
Clearing out the attic was really sort of like an archaeology excavation. Somewhere down in those different stacked up layers of history I uncovered an ancient artifact called a cassette tape.
You see, back in the 1990s I started working on my family history. My great Aunt Eliza was born in 1912. She was my grandmother’s oldest sister. In the 1990s that made her the oldest living relative in my extended Perry family. I sat down with her for a series of interviews about what her life was like growing up here in Hendersonville.
I’ve never been a very fast note taker, so I recorded these sessions with the intention of one day transcribing them. All these years later, there it sat in an envelope at the bottom of a box. At first I wasn’t sure I could even find a cassette player anywhere to listen to it, but I eventually did locate one and suddenly all those wonderful stories came to life again as I listened to it.
What I had forgotten was that we sat down to do these interviews at my late grandmother’s house. She and their brother, my Uncle Harry, were also there. So that’s three people who are no longer living who were talking and laughing together on that tape.
I wasn’t quite prepared for what it would feel like to hear the sound of my dear grandmother’s voice again.
This was the voice that taught me to be quiet and pay attention to flowers, trees and animals and colors.
I am sure this could not happen in today’s system, but my grandmother had also been my kindergarten teacher, so this was the voice that literally taught me how to read and always encouraged me to create.
When my mother left my life at 7 years old, my grandmother stepped in to fill that void. Growing up I spent every Friday night with her. The voice on that tape was the one who tucked me into bed every weekend and let me have pizza for breakfast on Saturday morning or as much ketchup on my eggs as I wanted.
This was the voice of the first person to ever tell me the story of Jesus and when I told her I wanted to become a Christian she pulled her old Chevy Impala over on the side of the road so we could pray.
It had been so long since I heard the sound of my late grandmother’s voice, but here’s what was unmistakable all these years later. I instantly recognized it as what love sounds like to me.
On that tape I recognized the voice of one who was willing to do whatever was necessary to help me succeed. She always had my back. She was always in my corner. She was always rooting for me.
Deep down at the core of our being we know what authentic love sounds like. We know the real deal when we see it and hear and that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.
The tenth chapter of John starts out with Jesus saying good shepherds know their own sheep by name and the sheep hear and recognize the voice of their shepherd. They follow it, but they won’t follow the voice of a stranger.
In today’s reading from that same chapter, Jesus explains why: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus says the difference between a good shepherd and someone who is just working a job is basically the difference of love. Both a hired hand and a real shepherd are employed in the care of the sheep, but only one cares about the sheep. The hired hand has no personal investment in or deep connection to the sheep. The sheep are just an economic means to an end, so the hired hand can quit at any time and probably will quit whenever things get too hard or costly. “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away.”
A good shepherd won’t quit and run away because love doesn’t quit. There’s a staying power that causes people to sacrifice and stick around even when things get hard.
Jesus says the defining characteristic of a truly good shepherd is sacrificial love.
Day in and day out, that’s what the voice of a good shepherd sounds like to the sheep.
Jesus then goes on to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
My sisters and brothers, we are drowning in a sea of voices. Technology has developed to the point where there are so many conflicting voices calling to us nonstop, telling us what we should do and how we should live.
The truth is the pandemic has only made it worse. For the past year we’ve been disconnected from life in the real world with each other. In that isolation many have turned to 24/7 news and social media to fill the void. More loud and shouting voices have meant less peace and more anxiety.
So the big question is this: Which one do we listen to? Which voice do we let through all the noise?
Today’s Gospel offers us our clue: “ I am the good shepherd...they will listen to my voice.”
Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd. It’s the one that sounds like love. The voice of Jesus is always the voice of love. It’s going to be the one inviting us to live something bigger than ourselves, something more than our own self-interests.
We live in very complicated times or at least it feels that way to me. Our world is rapidly changing and there are so many questions about situations we could not have imagined 20 or 30 years ago. I wish I had all the answers. The truth is that I don;t even fully understand all of the questions, but here is what I do know for sure: In every situation the voice of the Good Shepherd is the one that is calling us to do whatever is the most loving thing; not the easy thing, but the most loving thing because that is who Jesus is. He’s not the hired hand. He’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life so that others might live.
That kind of love is courageous. That kind of love is costly and that kind of love is exactly what our hurting world desperately needs to see.
The latest figures in our country show a steep decline in church membership across all faith traditions. Even the churches and denominations that were growing ten years ago have experienced dramatic reversals in attendance and membership. Because I’ve worked in an interdenominational Christian ministry for 20 years, I am friends with pastors and church leaders in many other denominations. Trust me, they’re also looking at those same trends and statistics. As you might imagine, I hear a fair amount of hand-wringing about the terrible direction our society is headed if these trends continue.
What’s interesting is that my vocation in the world also often places me in conversation with people who no longer go to church and with young people who’ve never gone to church. This is what I have discovered: The fact that they don’t go to church doesn’t mean that they’re not spiritual. It doesn’t even mean they somehow hate the church. They’re certainly not anti-God, anti-Jesus or anti-faith. They’re just hungry for the real deal.
Too often what the world has heard and experienced from institutional Christianity has been a hollow version of love that is more about control than giving life. It goes something like this: I will love you, IF you let me fix you. I will love you, IF you agree with me and I can hear my opinions coming out of your mouth. I will love you, IF you will become the version of you that I want you to become.
That’s NOT the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus simply says, “I am the Good Shepherd...I lay down my life for the sheep.” Any qualifications, limits or exclusions to that are the one’s someone else places in there, not Jesus himself.
This world needs people who will listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. The world needs followers of Jesus who love like Jesus. The Gospel should sound like authentic sacrificial love.
Once I realized what was on that cassette tape, I found someone locally who could professionally transfer it to a digital audio file. Then I shared it with my extended family all over the United States. The responses I received from my relatives matched my initial reaction. To a person, everyone agreed that the stories on there are wonderful and fascinating, but the real treasure was getting to hear the voices of people we loved and who loved us come to life again.
My sisters and brothers, the voice of the Good Shepherd is still speaking today, 2000 years later. I don’t just mean through the Bible.
Whenever and wherever our faith causes us to love others enough to give of ourselves so that others might live, the voice of the Good Shepherd comes to life and speaks through our lives.
Jesus says, “They will listen to my voice.” If we do, that voice will speak through us.