A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 8, 2022 (Easter 4, Year C)
On this Good Shepherd Sunday we hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” This is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life: listening to Jesus’ voice and following him. “My sheep hear my voice.” We’re the sheep in this scenario, charged with listening to Jesus’ voice.
Now, I admit that whenever I reflect on this passage I’m transported back to the battery of psychological tests I had to take when I was first pursuing a call to ordained ministry. Believe it or not, there’s a whole screening process. But one of the questions on one of the tests was, “Do you hear voices?” And at first, I was like ‘of course not. I know what you’re trying to get at here.’ But then this passage came to mind: “My sheep hear my voice.” So when the question “Do you hear voices” is asked, I might fill in ‘no’ on a psychological test, but the real answer is, it’s complicated. Jesus encourages us to hear his voice. To follow Jesus is to listen to Jesus. And regardless of vocation, that’s something we are all called to do in our lives.
Now, at one level, it’s a lot easier for me to tell people I listen to Jesus’ voice than it is for most of you. I’m a priest, after all. I dress up in fancy vestments on Sunday mornings and stand up in a pulpit to talk about God. I wear a clerical collar around town. A few years ago the owner at Redeye Roasters found me a mug that says “Jesus and Coffee” and he trains all his baristas to serve my coffee in it whenever I show up. My Twitter handle is @FatherTim. If I post a prayer, no one thinks it’s weird or that I’m too much of a Jesus freak. The truth is, I am a Jesus freak and I get paid to be one. People don’t give me strange looks when I tell them I go to church every Sunday, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.
And while church-going used to be much more widespread and people talking about their faith used to be more commonplace, it no longer is. How many of your neighbors go to church? How many of your co-workers go to church? Certainly a lot fewer than a generation or two ago. Or even a decade ago. And there are many reasons for this. People don’t think faith matters, they’re busy, they’re self-absorbed, they feel as if they’re the ones in control of their lives, not some God they cannot see or understand. There’s also no longer any social pressure to go to church. No one gets shamed for staying in bed and reading the paper or going shopping or heading out to the little league field.
If you told people that you both hear and heed the voice of Jesus, you might lose some friends. But this is the great challenge: how will you hear and heed the voice of Jesus not just on Sunday morning but in your daily life? At work, at dinner parties, at the playground, with your family. How will you hear and heed the voice of Jesus not just for an hour on Sunday morning but in every aspect of your life? Allowing God’s love to infuse your interactions with others, guide your financial decisions, impact the way you respect the dignity of those on the margins of society. This is what it means to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to do his will in your life.
And whether or not those around you are aware of Jesus or care about Jesus or are interested in Jesus, this is what it means to live as a Christian in the world. We hear and heed the voice of Jesus whatever else is going on around us, whatever others think of our actions. I often speak of the Christian life as a counter-cultural existence. Loving others runs counter to so many of the messages the world conveys. We are overwhelmed with messages encouraging us to be self-sufficient and self-aggrandizing and self-focused. And the voice of Jesus tells us to be outwardly focused, to be mindful of the needs of others, to love one another as Jesus loves us. This message increasingly cuts across everything we are taught about the world. And yet it endures because it is holy and true, gentle and brimming with hope.
There is another way to live, and by hearing and heeding Jesus’ voice you are showing the world that there is another way to love. Another way to walk through this world with compassion and caring and self-giving concern for those whom we encounter on this journey of life and faith.
The danger, or at least potential pitfall, in talking about hearing and heeding Jesus’ voice is that we can believe that we have a monopoly on hearing it and interpreting it correctly. This often gets used as a cudgel to beat back those with whom we disagree. I’m the one who’s hearing the true voice of Jesus when it comes to fill-in-the-blank issues. All you have to do is look at the headlines to see that Christians don’t always agree. This past week we saw this with a leaked document from the Supreme Court. Christians of various stripes were rejoicing and lamenting.
So, how can we be sure that we’re listening to Jesus’ voice and not our own twisted interpretation of it? I’m convinced we have a foolproof method to discern what is of Jesus and what is merely noise. We have as a filter the baptismal covenant; it’s the covenant into which we were all baptized and it’s the covenant we renew every time there’s a baptism here at St. John’s. In it, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We don’t just pay lip service to respect and dignity, this is a vow we make as fundamental to living out our lives as Christians not just inside the four walls of the church but out in the world. Where we work and interact with neighbors, where we serve others and meet new friends, where we engage in the public sphere and both agree and disagree with people. Where we are called to respect the dignity of every human being in every aspect of our lives, just as we’re called to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives. Being a Christian isn’t something we turn on and off when it’s convenient, it stands at the very core of our being, even when it’s hard, even when it goes against the cultural tide.
In the end, the filter of the baptismal covenant reminds us of Jesus’ teaching on how we treat “the least of these” in our midst. How we treat the left out and the left behind. And that comes from the unfiltered and unvarnished voice of Jesus. By this, Jesus tells us, everyone will know that you are my disciples, my sheep: if you have love for one another.