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John 10:1-10 (CEB)

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice.

He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

May 6-7, 2017
John 10:1-10
Good Shepherd Sunday

The image of Jesus as the compassionate, caring, attentive shepherd is one of the most beloved images of Jesus in all of Scripture. The 4th weekend/Sunday of the Easter season is called Good Shepherd weekend/Sunday and the Lectionary Scriptures provide images of Jesus as our guiding Shepherd. We heard the 23rd Psalm earlier about God being our Shepherd, who leads, guides and restores.

Now, our Gospel reading will speak about Jesus as the gate for the sheep, as the One whose voice the sheep recognize, and as the One who came that we may have life and have it fully and abundantly.

(Read John 10:1-10)

I have found it to be a challenging tension…this continual trying to bring myself more and more into the 21st century by becoming connected electronically, without losing the art of face-to-face communication.

What I’ve noticed is that many electronic gadgets can now be operated entirely by voice, whether it’s the voice service box named Alexa, or a Smart phone, or the computer, the alarm clock and many other gadgets.

I remember when I discovered that I could text someone by simply speaking into the little microphone on my smart phone. But I have also discovered that I had better read over that text before sending it because the message does not always reflect what I actually said!

This all started for me a few years ago when I got my new car and it was equipped with Bluetooth technology, which means I can program in my cell phone contacts and then with a button on the steering-wheel, a pleasant woman’s voice asks me who I’d like to call.
I then say the person’s first name and whether I want to call their home phone, cell phone, or work phone.

Sounds simple enough. Once I got my phone contacts programmed in, I was very excited to use the voice recognition system. The problem is it rarely recognizes my voice!

For instance, if I have a stuffy nose, it won’t recognize my voice. If I do not speak slowly enough or annunciate properly, it won’t recognize my voice and the pleasant woman will say, “Can you please repeat that?” or, “I do not understand that command.” Several times she has even said, “I do not understand that accent.” My response of course is, accent! What accent?!

Then, the more times my voice is not recognized, the more I raise my voice until I’m yelling, and the pleasant woman’s voice remains the same, saying, “Can you please repeat that?” or “I do not understand that command.”

What I need to understand is, frustrating or not, voice-activated technology isn’t the stuff of science fiction or Star Trek anymore; it’s everywhere.

Our Gospel scripture says that, “Whenever Jesus has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.” This is not about voice-activated technology, but it is about listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
How well do we listen to the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd and how well do we embrace the full and abundant life Jesus offers, especially in the anxious times in which we live?

Living life to the fullest and living abundantly as Jesus offers, is to know God and allow ourselves to be known by God. It is to trust that God is our Good Shepherd in all of life and that the first step to this full and abundant life is to listen.

Just as the familiar 23rd Psalm gives us the image of God leading and guiding and providing for us, our Gospel story speaks about listening and voice recognition, saying that the sheep follow Jesus because they know his voice. Shepherds of ancient times and even sheep owners today, often know each sheep by name, and the sheep in turn recognize their voice and distinctive call.

In a small country church I served while attending seminary, one family in the church were sheep farmers. I was invited to their farm once and learned more about sheep then I will ever need to know.

But what fascinated me was how each member of the family had their own sheep calls that the sheep recognized. When the sheep heard one of these familiar calls they would come in from the pasture and be easily led to where they needed to go.

I remember trying to mimic their calls and nothing…the sheep ignored me.
Our gospel reading says the sheep “won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.”

I have often used a game when teaching Confirmation called ‘Lead by Sound.’ The youth are paired up and one person puts on a blindfold and the other person chooses a sound to say over and over to lead their partner around the area. The sound is to be steady and consistent, but if danger is approaching such as the blindfolded person is going to run into a wall or a chair or some other obstacle, the one making the sound increases the volume and rhythm of the sound in an attempt to steer their partner in a safe direction.

The challenge is, when there are multiple people leading others around the same area making different sounds. So, if the sound I am listening for is a quacking duck and you’re listening for a barking dog sound, and you’re listening for a mooing cow sound; you can understand how hard it would be to discern the sound that we are each to be listening for.

When the exercise is over and everyone is safe, we talk about what voices do we listen to in our daily lives and why?

How do we sort through multiple voices coming at us on a daily basis?

What are the voices we can recognize, count on, and trust?

How are we being still and listening for God’s voice?

And what kind of voice are we for others?

Our days are filled with many voices speaking loud and often conflicting messages. Some of these voices are calling us to follow a path of grace and love, while other voices seek to lure us down other paths. So, how do we know the voice of our Good Shepherd God?

Listening to and trusting God in our lives is nurtured over time through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, reading the Scriptures, service to others, and fellowship with those whose voice of encouragement and support will lead us to the presence of the One who is the gate to full and abundant life?

Jesus clearly expresses the intent of his mission and ministry when he says, “I came so they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest;” or “have it abundantly” as other biblical translations say.

And this full and abundant life is for all people. While we hear Jesus say that he is the gate to the sheepfold, it may not be easy for us to visualize Jesus welcoming into the safety of his loving fold those who are different from us. So often we are surprised by those who hear and know the voice of the Shepherd and we are surprised by the wideness of God’s inclusive and expansive love and mercy.
The sheep who follow our Shepherd God are not always like-minded or similar. And that’s why it is important to remember that status and difference exits only in the minds and hearts and attitudes of human beings, never in the mind and heart of God.
When we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, we hear the voice that calls us to widen the circle and expand our hearts and minds.

In the last week, I have listened to voices speaking at a meeting of the Sun Prairie City Council and voices speaking about a ruling made by the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church.

The voices at the City Council meeting were speaking on both sides of purposed ordinances regarding non-discrimination practices in the city of Sun Prairie. The voices within our Church denomination were speaking about the recent ruling of the Judicial Council, which is equivalent to the supreme court of our denomination, that said the election and consecration of an openly gay Bishop violates church law.

The recent voices I have heard within the city of Sun Prairie and The UMC have reflected the deep division in our public life and the life of the Church over matters of difference based mainly on race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

These are not easy conversation and when we enter the conversation we do so based on our own experience, our own way of reasoning, our own traditions, and our own interpretation of Scripture.

In the way I read our scripture passage from the Gospel of John, it comes back to listening…listening to the Good Shepherd, who is always the voice of compassion.

We are called to respond to that voice of compassion…and to also be that voice of compassion. Even though compassion can mean different things to different people, it has the ability to open our hearts and widen our circles of love and care and grace.

Compassion has the component of putting others first, of listening to the needs of others, and of acting upon what we hear for the common good of people.
When we think that the first part of the word compassion is ‘compass,’ and if we allow compassion to be the compass that guides our listening and guides our voice in life, then compassion will expand our hearing and our speaking.

Two of the most powerful gifts we have as people of faith is our ears and our voice. The words we speak can be build up or tear down; can reason or divide; can honor or harm; can affirm or condemn. But first we must listen and hear the voice of our Good Shepherd God, who calls us to live and serve as one, even in our differences.

May it be so for each of us. Thanks be to God.