Sermon: The Shepherd’s Voice


Two guys saw a fellow driving a herd of sheep down the lane towards town, beating a stick and yelling at them to keep them moving. “I thought shepherds led their sheep,” one guy said to his friend. “Oh they do,” answered the friend. “He’s not a shepherd. That’s the village butcher.”

 

The other night I’m watching the NCAA tournament on TV, and during a commercial timeout, a pretty young woman comes on the screen to inform me that I, too, could be a real babe-magnet if I would only drink more Budweiser. Well, I’ve known a few beer drinkers in my day, and it has been my studied observation that the more Budweiser they consume, the less attractive they actually become.

A while later, during halftime, another sexy TV spokeswoman tells me that I need to use Axl deoderant to curtail that embarrassing body odor. Well, how would she know?

And it seems like, anymore, in an hour-long television program there are more actual minutes devoted to the commercials than the show itself.

`Be sexy’, `be cool’, `be smart’, `be forever young’, `be more popular’, `be more independent’ . . . `depend on us.’ Most of all be gullible enough so that we can push you in whatever direction we want you to go.

With all of the rapidly increasing avenues of mass media we are exposed to literally hundreds – even thousands – of different voices each day; every one of them expressing their own assorted opinions and agendas.

Most of them, seemingly, designed to move us in the particular direction that the messenger, or messengers, want us to go; to get us to think about our lives in a certain way so that we will support their cause, or boost their ratings, or buy whatever it is they happen to be selling.

And, let’s not be deceived here folks, it’s not just Madison Avenue with soap to sell. CNN, MSNBC, FOX (`Fair and Balanced’) News have their own agenda to promote as well. Add, then, to the long list of sales pitches, respectively: `be politically correct’ and/or `be morally right.’

Thus, we morph from Walter Cronkite’s reassuring evening benediction, “And that’s the way it is . . .” now to `It is what we tell you it is . . .” from today’s media pundits.

The vast majority of media voices we encounter everyday are trying to convince you that they have the secret to life: that they know the way to go to be well-informed, successful, happy, fulfilled, popular and productive.

I suppose, for the most part, we should all look at our access to this great wealth of information, generally, as a good thing.

But sometimes I wonder if we get so conditioned to mass communication—and perhaps so acclimated or even addicted to it—that we become kind of oblivious to its inherent dangers.

A few years ago, somebody hacked into my wife’s AOL email account and – pretending to be Diane – started sending emails to everyone listed in her address book saying she was stranded in the Philippines, her purse and passport had been stolen and she needed some peculiar amount of money (a couple of thousand dollars) to get home.

Fortunately, a number of internet-savvy friends recognized the scam and contacted Diane to tell her that her email had been hack into, along with at least one somewhat less savvy colleague offering financial help (if she really needed it).

Today this sort of thing seems to have become a daily occurrence.

How many people, I wonder, actually send money to such phony requests?

 

Slammers, spammers, bloggers, hackers, hucksters, spinners, con artists and telemarketers…at least we know where they’re coming from.

We can tell the butchers from the shepherds. Right?

And when we’ve had enough of those voices, we can always log off the computer; unplug the phone, or use that well-worn mute button on the TV.

But there are also other voices in our lives. Voices closer to home, so to speak; voices that have even greater influence on us; our perceptions about self and the world.

 

There’s the story of a little nine year old boy who had a wicked crush on his fourth grade teacher; Mrs. Latimer. He just loved the way Mrs. Latimer always greeted him when he came into school each day. She just sang “Hello” to her little charges in the morning. Mrs. Latimer was such a sweet, kind, and caring teacher. And even if a student had trouble with…say Math or Geography…she always had a good word for her students. Would give special attention to each and every child. For this particular little boy, the fourth grade had simply been the best year of his academic life.

But, alas, fourth grade came to an end, and he moved up to the fifth grade.  And his fifth grade teacher was altogether a different kettle of fish. Her name was Miss Bear. And she was none of the wonderful things that Mrs. Latimer was. Do you know how some teachers probably should have never gone into teaching in the first place?

Miss Bear seemed to have an inherent dislike for children in general. She was gruff and sullen, most of the time apparently preoccupied with her own thoughts and fingernails; would tend to just give out one reading assignment after another. And when she was aroused from behind her desk, it was usually to no happy advantage for her students.

The little boy would sit at his desk, hide behind a book, and daydream about being back in Mrs. Latimer’s class. And, in fact, on more than one occasion, was discovered in the throes of such a daydream and subsequently ushered by Miss Bear into the hallway to stand facing the wall.

Well, one day, while holding up the hallway wall with his nose, the little boy saw Mrs. Latimer coming from the teacher’s lounge towards her classroom (which was right across the hall). He felt a rush of embarrassment flow through him.

But as Mrs. Latimer drew near, she smiled that winning smile, and hope against all hope, took him by the hand to lead him into her own classroom. Could it be that his dream was coming true?

Mrs. Latimer stopped with the little boy by her desk, to introduce him to the rest of the class as one of her former students. As she did, he noticed that a large map of the United States was pulled down over the blackboard. Presently Mrs. Latimer asked the little boy, as he stood there, what the capital of South Dakota was.

Well, the little boy was stunned. And even if he had known the answer to that question (ever) he probably would not have been able to call it forth in that moment.

“Well, then, maybe you can tell us what the capital of Missouri is,” Mrs. Latimer continued. Again, the little boy was without sound.

A sinking feeling seized his heart as his dream began to melt into a nightmare. Finally Mrs. Latimer concluded to the class, “See boys and girls, this is what happens when you do not diligently study your geography.”

 

Discerning one’s way through the voices of this world is not necessarily always an easy thing to do. Even those who seem most trustworthy – those whom we think we know, those to whom we are most vulnerable – teachers, parents, friends, mentors – can at times lead us astray.

And, Lord knows, we’ve been getting, as of late, a firsthand refresher course in the duplicity of those whom we put into political office with our vote of confidence in the promises they make and the vision they pitch.

But even those invested, perhaps, with the highest level of trust, those specifically charged to care for and shepherd the flock – priests, clergymen & women, charismatic televangelists – will sometimes mislead the sheep.

In the biz we call it “preying on the flock,” and it has disastrous consequences. Time and time again I have seen colleagues in ministry and their congregations damaged beyond repair by the abuse of office and authority.

 

“Woe to them,” Jesus says, with a reproachful eye toward the religious leaders of his time, “better that they have a milestone hung around their neck and be cast into the depths of the ocean than to lead these little ones astray.” [Matt. 18:6]

 

Beware of false prophets who proclaim the end is near, and yet give no instruction as to how to love God’s children today.

Beware of wolves in shepherd’s clothing who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sole purpose of lining their own pockets with fleece.

Beware of unwise shepherds who claim to be Christian, and yet call other believers `heretic’ simply because they do not subscribe to their particular brand of theology or politics.

Beware the many voices of the world which profess to care about the flock, but in truth only want to exploit sheep for their own gain.

Does all this mean that we can never trust anyone?

That we can never listen to any voice?

No, of course not.

But there is only One Voice that is truly worthy of our complete trust.

All other trustworthy voices echo his.

And there is only One Shepherd who can be called truly Good.

All other shepherds are `good’ only to the degree that they follow his Way.

The truth is that, among the multitude of voices, only One Voice speaks from a heart filled with love, and love alone, for us.

 

Reformed theologian and author Lewis B. Smedes had his own epiphany about that very thing: “If I wanted to come to terms with God it had to be on God’s terms, the chief one being that I would have to give up my ridiculous notion that I would be accepted by God if I had what it took to be a very “proper type.” What I needed to do was let God accept me with no consideration of whether I was acceptable or unacceptable. And then, when I had done that, to quit stewing about it and just rest in the fact that I was accepted by God, no strings attached. Odd that it should have taken me so long to get the point.” (From My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir)

 

Though we might well be influenced by a variety of would-be-shepherds in this world, we must somehow learn to recognize the Voice of that One Shepherd whom we can truly call `Good’. We must learn to tune into his unique call in our lives.

Have you ever been at a crowded party, lots of people, really noisy?

And maybe you were sitting off in a corner, by yourself somewhere, minding your own business, munching on chips or something. And then somebody – clear across the room, just at conversational level – will say your name.

And, even through the din of all those other voices and all those other conversations, from the other side of the room, you’ll hear that voice speak your name, and you’ll perk up your ears to try to catch what is being said.

And, especially if you think you hear a positive, friendly tone to that conversation, you might even get up from where you are and go across the room to join in on it.

In first century Palestine, all the shepherds would bring their flocks to the same watering place, where the various flocks would gather to create one, large, indistinguishable bleating congregation. Once they’d mixed together like that, you’d think it impossible to separate them again. But each shepherd had his own special call, or whistle, or click; one with which the sheep of his own flock were well familiar. And as soon as the sheep heard the unique call of their own shepherd, they would immediately separate from the larger congregate and follow this one they knew and trusted.

 

Listen: with such a great multitude of sources hurling negative assertions at us day in and day out, it’s no wonder that we make our way—down the block, across the street, or across town—to this place on Sunday morning, seeking a little positive affirmation. I truly believe that we are all here today because, in some special way, we’ve each heard the Voice of the Good Shepherd calling us. We’re here because we put our trust in his faithfulness; not that of others, nor even our own.

We are part of this flock, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “not because we are certain of God, but because God is certain of us” (The Preaching Life, p. 145).

So while the media hounds scramble over each other to be the first to publish the latest horrors of humanity, in here we harken to angelic hosts who pronounce “Rejoice! For we bring you good news of great joy. God brings peace to all people, with whom God is very well pleased.”

And while the Madison Avenue hawks circle the landscape searching for the bones of a wounded humanity to pick over, reminding us of all that we are not: God in Christ declares to us, “Have no fear, little flock. My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.”

And even though bosses, teachers and perhaps even friends, spouses or parents, have told us that we’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, or tough enough; we have a Savior who affirms that:  “You are a royal priesthood. A holy nation. God’s own beloved children . . .

“You can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you.”

`You are my precious lambs, whom I will tend and care for; whom I will lead through the darkest valley into green pastures, beside still waters.’ Forevermore. Amen.