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May 2, 2004 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)—“Whose Voice Are We Listening To Anyway?”
Pastor David Barber
Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
It's happened more than once in my ministry. It's not unusual to be called to the bedside of someone seriously ill and perhaps near death. I walk into a hospital room or a bedroom or even a living room that's been rearranged to take care of the terminally ill, and the person in the bed is in a coma or perhaps alternating between semi-consciousness and unconsciousness.
"I don't know if she'll respond to you pastor," says the voice of a loved one or a caregiver. "She hasn't seemed to recognize us for the last couple of days, but you can try."
I've been told that hearing is one of the last senses to disappear, and that even in a coma, a patient may still be responding internally to what is being said and the tone in which it is spoken.
I lean down, close to the face of this dying one. I speak gospel words of promise and hope, and if I know this person well enough, I also speak words of affirmation and thanksgiving for what she has meant to me.
But then I speak these familiar words of recognition: "Our Father, who art in heaven," or "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."
I suddenly discover that I'm not alone in the speaking of these words, for another voice has joined mine. There's no sound, but the lips are moving: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff--they comfort me."
And when I'm done, the lips stop moving as well. The signs of recognition are gone as the person slips back into their unconsciousness state. But once again the 23rd Psalm has demonstrated its powerful presence as it penetrated the heart and soul of someone desperately sick.
The readings this morning from Revelation, from the Gospel of John, as well as the 23rd Psalm, call us to faithfulness. They call us to follow Jesus in the very midst of adversity and oppressive powers.
They speak to us about the security of faith in such times. They tell us how we are held firm by the One who knows us in the midst of tribulation when all else may fail us or disappoint us.
On the surface, the sheep in our psalm for today don't need anything. Like visitors in paradise, spending their time on the beaches of Hawaii, soaking up sunshine and breathing in "aloha," these sheep pass their time lollygaging in green pastures and drinking from still waters.
There's not a care in the world until we notice that there's some other imagery in this psalm. The sheep must also pass fearlessly through valleys that are like night, filled with deep shadows. And that wonderful alfalfa and clover filled with an abundance of water happens to be surrounded by enemies. That's enough to give the sheep indigestion.
This imagery tells us that this is a psalm for life and the turmoil of this life. This is a psalm for those times when the path takes a sharp turn and leads us through the darkness.
What an amazing and awesome promise we're being given here! We're given a promise that we'll never have to go through the darkness alone. Like a Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep, the Lord promises to be with us through all the shadows and whatever enemies may surround us.
The hand that leads us through the darkness of the valley of the shadow is the same hand that has been scarred by the nails of the cross. Jesus is the One who knows us. Jesus is the One who holds unto us, says our Gospel for today... and no one and no thing will ever separate us from his presence.
In a slightly different format, the reading from Revelation also speaks to this hope and this assurance. John paints for us a great multitude of people that no can count...from every corner of the globe. They're robed in white carrying the palm branches of victory.
But even here there are shades of darkness and heaviness as these victorious folks have just come out of the great ordeal. They are, as Paul says--"struck down, but not destroyed; bloodied, but not beaten; afflicted in every way, but not crushed...always carrying in their body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus is also made visible within them."
In the very midst of principalities and powers like Caesar of yesterday or the Caesars of today...or oppressors like racism, poverty, and even our own personal tragedies...John has the audacity to tell us that God's final victory is assured and the future is certain.
"The Lamb who was slain...will be our Shepherd.
These words of promise and hope are given to God's faithful people who have embraced life and struggle with commitment against overwhelming odds. They're written to give encouragement and support to remain faithful when there's the temptation to give up and find our security in other sources.
They're written to give us courage for the tasks of daily life by picking up the cross of Jesus Christ wherever this cross looms before us. They're written to give us hope...even when there seems so little to hope for...and despair and cynicism seem to be more likely options.
For these treacherous times, it's important that we listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, and it's important that we help each other listen to this voice as well. That's one of the reasons we come together for worship, study, and service because there's lots of voices out there screaming for our attention.
In the midst of conflict and suffering, in the midst of fear from being terrorized, whose voice will we listen to and in whom will we place our trust?
About ten days ago, the media told us about the death of Pat Tillman. He was killed on April 22 when his patrol was ambushed in a small mountain village in Afghanistan.
Pat Tillman was a former NFL quarterback who played for the Arizona Cardinals. In fact he played both his college football and professional football at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. As a college student, he graduated summa cum laude with a 3.84 grade point average in marketing.
He had a 3.6 million-dollar contract to play for the Cardinals, but he gave it up to serve his country. Deeply affected by the events of September 11, he said, "I'm no more patriotic than the less fortunate, less renowned countrymen and women who volunteered." And so he signed up with his brother Kevin who was a minor league baseball player for the Cleveland Indians.
Regardless of how I've felt about the destructive and catastrophic policies of our government in Iraq and Afghanistan, I respect and admire someone like Pat Tillman who listened to another voice within him besides the voice of greed and money.
He stands in contrast to a mantra made famous by a sports movie a few years ago entitled Jerry McGuire, "Show me the money!" And perhaps he serves as a model so that we might have the same conviction and commitment for the things we confess and believe.
For those of us who are parents and grandparents, there's a delightful children's movie by the name of Babe. As many of you already know, Babe is a pig on a sheep farm, but she learns how to herd sheep and becomes a national champion.
The narrator tells us, "This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever. There was a time not so long ago when pigs were afforded no respect, except by other pigs; they lived their whole life in a cruel and sunless world.
In those days pigs believed that the sooner they grew large and fat, the sooner they'd be taken into Paradise, a place so wonderful that no pig ever thought to come back."
But Babe changed all of that. This pig breaks the boundaries and the stereotypes and challenges the other animals to do so as well. She is a good shepherd figure. The sheep come to know her voice because she genuinely cares for them, and she takes the time to learn their language. They trust Babe and so they respond to this extraordinary and unusual shepherd.
Our shepherd is no pig--and yet the ways of this Shepherd may seem to be just as strange and just as foolish and foreign as a pig trying to herd sheep. To put our trust in such a person may cause the world to laugh at us just as the sheep and all the other farm animals laughed and made fun of Babe.
This shepherd speaks of love in the midst of hate; non-violence where there is terror and our security and our freedom is being threatened; forgiveness when we're tempted to seek revenge. This shepherd calls us to respond and to live differently from the wolf-like and predator ways that we experience all around us.
That's why it's important to have a community that embodies the ways of the Good Shepherd because it's so easy to revert to old ways and voices that sound comfortable and sound logical but are voices of destruction and lead us into ways of death.
When we're fearful, anxious, or afraid, It's easy to go back to destructive patterns of behavior that repays evil for evil, and causes us to react in the same way as those we label as our enemies.
The voice of the Good Shepherd empowers us to live in trust and obedience...embodying a different way.
This voice empowers us to love and to forgive even our enemies, and to be faithful even if we aren't successful and see no visible results.
We don't always know where this voice is leading us, but we do know the One who calls us and leads us. But most important of all, Jesus knows us.
He promises us, that come what may, no one will snatch us out of his hand...and no one will snatch us out of the hand of God as well.
Now that's a voice worth following!
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org