"How Is Our Hearing?"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – May 15, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

     This morning I want to talk about the symbol Jesus used in our Scripture lesson to describe himself and the nature of his ministry.  He referred to himself as the “Good Shepherd.” In fact, there are several related symbols that we will discuss today that are associated with being a good shepherd.   

     In John’s Gospel, Jesus told his listeners twice what the true purpose was for his ministry.  He said, “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness and abundance.” (John 10:10b) Later in the Gospel, he stated his purpose again with even greater clarity: “I was born and came into the world for this one purposeto speak about the truth.  Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.” (John 18:37c)  The preachers and writers that came after Jesus greatly enhanced his purpose and role with their own theology, but these words did not come from them; they came from Jesus.

     There could not have been a more perfect image for Jesus to use among his listeners than being a Good Shepherd.  Here is why this is so:  The main part of Judaea is a central plateau that stretches from Bethel to Hebron, a distance of about 35 miles in width and 16 miles in length.  The land was used for grazing herds of sheep rather than for growing crops.  Jesus used this imagery not only to connect with his people but also to their faith heritage.

     The Psalms were filled with the imagery that God was the shepherd of his people.  For example, “We are the people of his pasture and the flock under his care.” (Ps. 95:7) “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Ps. 23:1)  “We, your people and the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever.”  (Ps. 100:3)   Also, Isaiah wrote, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd:  He shall gather the lambs with His arm, carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are young.”  (Is. 40:11)

     The faith tradition of the Jews tells us that they also knew their leaders as shepherds. The Latin word for a shepherd is pastorThe problem in every generation is that there have been well-intentioned shepherds that, for whatever reason, do not feed their flocks.

     For example, once Jeremiah wrote:  “Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep that dwell in God’s pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1f)  Also Ezekiel wrote, “Woe unto the shepherds of Israel that feed only themselves!  Should not the shepherds feed their flock?” (Ezekiel 34:1f)  The role of pastors in the scriptures is very specific.  Jesus once underscored the mission of pastors when he said three times to Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter responded, “Lord, you know that I do.”  Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”  (John 21:15f)

     There is a legend that has circulated among the Jews that described why God chose Moses to lead his people.  When Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law, one of the young lambs scampered off.  Moses followed it until the lamb had reached a ravine where it had found a source of water. 

     When Moses approached the lamb, he said to it, “I did not realize that you ran away because you were thirsty.  You must be weary from your search.”  He put the young lamb on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock.  It was then that God said, “Because you have shown great compassion for this one lamb that wandered off, you shall lead my flock out of Egypt.”

     In our lesson there is also the imagery of the sheep being able to recognize the shepherd’s voice.  To Jesus’ listeners, this ability was common knowledge.  The sheep in Judaea were raised for their fleece, not for meat.  Often sheep were with their shepherd for years.  Each sheep had a name. Shepherds knew how to communicate with each one individually as well as their entire flock.  Shepherds spoke in a sing-song voice using a weird language that would sound more like baby talk to humans.  

     It was a common practice that shepherds would combine their herds at night in the same corral.  There might be hundreds of sheep.  Separating the sheep in the morning was never a problem.  Each shepherd used his own special language that only his sheep would understand. The sheep that were his would not follow a shepherd whose voice they did not recognize.

     When Jesus taught that those who came before him were thieves and robbers, he was not talking about the prophets and the patriarchs of their faith heritage.  He was talking about revolutionaries and insurgents who claimed to be sent by God.

     The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that during this period of history there were no less than 10,000 disorders in Judaea caused by men of war.  These were Zealots who did not mind dying for their beliefs.  These were men who believed that war, murder, assassination and death were necessary before “the golden age” of Israel would once again appear.  Many followed these men and they engaged in class warfare, bitterness, warfare and destruction.  When one reads Josephus, his description of events is nearly identical to what is taking place today in the Middle East.  The radical Jews had their own version of today’s Taliban.

     Jesus wanted his listeners to know that there was a different path from the one their history had taught them.  To the Jews, God was thought to be very judgmental, moody and jealous, a being that was predisposed to punishing His children, abandoning them, destroying His enemies and brooding when life was not what God had intended.  Even King David, their hero, was a warrior king. 

      Jesus came to give people a much different image of God.  The pathway to life in abundance was through the doorway of knowing peace and expressing love. There are countless ways to live, but only the way of Jesus produces joy, happiness, enthusiasm and enjoying life as the grand adventure it was intended to be.   

     In the secular literature of the time, there is a story where a Roman soldier came before Julius Caesar seeking permission to end his life.  He wanted to commit suicide which was against Roman law.  He was disheveled and unkempt appearing before Caesar as a miserable creature.  Caesar looked at him and asked, “Soldier, were you ever alive?”  

     This same question could be asked of countless people today who have never established a connection with anything that would invite their creativity to surface.  They remain alone and confused.  They have yet to figure out their purpose for living.  They define themselves by the way others treat them.   

     The Jews and disciples that resonated with Jesus’ teachings were referred to as the people of the way There was something very distinctive about these people -- from Zacchaeus, the chief of the tax collectors, to Nicodemus, the articulate member of the Sanhedrin.  They were filled with vitality because they found a new dimension to life.  Their abundance of energy exuded from them when they learned what happens to them when they allow what is inside of them to show.  

     Jesus also made repeated references to what happens when people listen to the countless voices of thieves and robbers.  There are times when we lose our way.  Everyone does from time to time. 

     The best compass that tells us where we are in life is our attitude, mood and disposition.  They are the portals through which our spirits communicate.  They will also tell us what voice we are following.  Is that voice coming from the Good Shepherd or is it some other voice?  That voice helps us to determine our responses to our life’s experiences.

     There is a story that I have told in every church I have served.  I used it for the first time when I was part of a team that was providing a weekend orientation for new pastors going into their first appointment.  The story involved what happened to both a lay person and new pastor who just graduated from seminary.  Both were listening to a voice that was not coming from the Good Shepherd. 

     The woman belonged to one of our large United Methodist churches. She had experienced the death of several husbands whose cumulative investments and life insurance had made her a fairly wealthy widow.  She was also very generous with her money.

     Whatever Miss Eleanor wanted, she got.  She began to tell the Trustees how she wanted the bathrooms of the church to be decorated.  She was placing her preferred artwork in the hallways.  The carpet in the sanctuary had been replaced a number of times.  Of course, she always paid for these additions and renovations. 

     As often happens in United Methodist churches, there was a change in pastors.  The minister who was appointed did not know her.  He began to make changes of which she disapproved.  After a number of heated exchanges between the two, she stopped attending.  She wrote a fairly firm letter to the pastor and explained why she would no longer be supporting the church with either her financial contributions or her presence. 

     He responded with a note that, in essence, said, “I am very sorry that you feel the way you do.  Obviously we cannot agree to disagree on a number of matters in the life of our church.  I am sorry you have made the choice you have. We will miss you.”  His words only fed her deeply hurt feelings.  The church had been her life and she really had been very generous in her giving.  She went into an emotional cave.

     A year or so had passed when word came that Miss Eleanor was in the hospital.  The pastor was well aware of this woman’s allergy toward him, so he asked the newly appointed associate minister to visit her. He was not acquainted with her conflicts with the pastor.     

     As he entered her hospital room, he partially closed the door.  This unintentional act allowed only a narrow shaft of light to enter from the hallway. It was an hour before visiting hours were over so the room was very dark. He nervously approached her bed and introduced himself.  In doing so, he bumped against the side railing of her bed and it slammed down with an extraordinarily loud sound. Miss Eleanor remained silent.  He apologized and tried to make small talk but he had become so self-conscious that his words were not making any sense.  There were embarrassing pauses.  She was not talking. He felt he had to get out of there. 

     He decided to take her hand and close with a prayer.  As he tried to find her hand, he accidentally touched her breast.  Horrified, he drew back his hand quickly. As he did so, his elbow knocked over the water pitcher on her tray sending water everywhere.  

     With his heart now pounding and his anxiety soaring, he attempted to offer a prayer.  His words were hesitant and disconnected.  In fact, just like his attempt at making conversation, his prayer made no sense at all. He said “Amen” and left her room feeling defeated and embarrassed.  As he walked to his car, he even debated whether or not he was cut out to be a pastor.

     The next day Miss Eleanor called the church and asked to speak to the young pastor.  She said, “Please come back.  I must apologize to you.  I could not speak because I was biting my tongue and I had the pillow partially over my face.  I was laughing too hard at how dear you were that I could feel my bed shaking.  Everything you were trying to do for me somehow wasn’t working out.  Honey, please come back.  Let’s both try this again.”

     He went to see her in the early afternoon.  The window blinds were up, she was sitting up in her bed and they had a very productive visit.  She told him her story revealing why she had been staying away from the church.  Her thinking had changed because of the innocent spirit of this young pastor.  She told him how she had been lost in the forest of her own hurt feelings and self-pity.   

     Rather than listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd, the young pastor was listening to the voice of defeat and Miss Eleanor had been listening to the voice of, “I am not appreciated.”  There are scores of voices that are beckoning us to follow.  Only one of them invites us to let the light of our love shine in darkness.  How is our hearing this morning?  Are we listening to the voice that allows our spirits to radiate God’s presence within us?