A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on April 13, 2008 (Easter 4, Year A)
In 1952 the American avant-garde composer John Cage wrote a piece titled 4’33”. It was unique in that the score directed the performer not to play an instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It didn’t matter what instrument the soloist chose not to play; the important thing was that, while on stage, he or she didn’t play it. But the piece wasn’t meant to simply be a four and a half minute period of silence. Cage’s theory was that true silence does not exist. So, for Cage, the piece actually consisted of the sounds of the environment in which the listeners heard the work performed.
Now once you get past the feeling of being subjected to the musical version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” there’s actually something to this. But it’s helpful to understand the circumstances that led Cage to this notion. In 1951 he had been invited into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. This was a room, externally soundproofed, that was designed so that the walls, ceiling and floor absorbed all the sounds made in the room. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear absolute silence, but he later wrote of the experience, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”
The upshot is that we can never enter into total silence; it simply does not exist. But what this might suggest to us from a faith perspective is that there is actually a third sound in the mix. Besides that high sound and low sound there is another sound. It’s often referred to as the “still, small voice within” – the sound of God’s movement within your own soul. It is indeed a sound that cannot be silenced. It is the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd; your shepherd.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, as it’s often called, we’re given all sorts of pastoral images. From John’s gospel we get the image of Jesus as Shepherd and we his sheep. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And we get the familiar strains of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” There is great intimacy in the relationship between flock and shepherd. Sheep may not be the brightest creatures but they are intrinsically tuned in to the shepherd. They have an innate ability to distinguish between and recognize voices. The relationship with the shepherd literally defines a sheep’s life. Listen and live; fail to listen and be eaten by wolves.
But Jesus isn’t just giving us a lesson on the farming practices of ancient Palestine. He is suggesting that, like sheep, our identity is wrapped solely in our relationship with our shepherd. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus calls us each by name and we, like sheep, have an innate ability to recognize his voice. I bid you to pay special attention to this voice of God that resides within you – that third sound. It is the one constant in our lives. When all else is seemingly falling apart and spinning out of control – whether in the world around us or in our lives – the voice of the Good Shepherd abides.
I considered giving a performance of 4’33” as this morning’s sermon. I decided not to, mainly because I didn’t want people coming up to me at Coffee Hour and telling me it was the best sermon I’d ever preached. But I would suggest that the church does offer its own version of the composition. It’s called contemplative prayer. And I would encourage you sometime this week to set aside time for your own performance of 4’33”. A time where you can listen for the sound of the Good Shepherd’s voice calling out to you from the very depths of your soul.
At the end of our gospel passage Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does it mean to live life “abundantly?” Perhaps it’s best to begin by examining what it doesn’t mean. Living a life of abundance isn’t about having a lot of “stuff.” It’s not about living the bumper sticker that reads “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But isn’t that the first place our mind goes when we think about living abundantly? Abundance becomes synonymous with excess. And so Donald Trump becomes the symbol of the abundant life. You can almost hear Robin Leach’s voiceover detailing “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
But this abundance of material goods leads only to a fleeting happiness. There’s nothing abiding or permanent or eternal here. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” So the abundant life is not about possessions; rather the abundant life is relational. Specifically it’s about relationship with God. And Jesus offers the entryway, the gate, into this relationship. The only way to live a life of abundance is to be in touch with the voice of the Shepherd. Everything else falls short.
The question is whether or not we heed his call. Do we follow his voice toward the abundant life he offers or do we ignore his call amid the temptation of this other pseudo-abundant life. The implication with this pastoral imagery is that there are indeed all sorts of “bad” shepherds out there – calling people to places and things which are harmful. Jesus, in contrast, stands against all this as the “good” shepherd, leading his sheep – you and me – into a life of abundant faith and relationship. May it be poured out upon you until your cup runneth over. Then, when you hear and follow that voice of the shepherd, your shepherd, goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008