Updated: May 9
This is a sermon about voices. The voices we listen to and how we use our own voices.
Earlier this week, I was telling some of my colleagues here how much I’ve enjoyed staying with my brother and sister-in-law and getting to hang out with my tiny four-month-old nephew, and one of them - one of my colleagues who shall remain nameless - looked up to the sky and said “Oh, to go back to the days before they learned the word ‘no’!”
I’m not a parent, so I’m not going to pretend that I can fully understand or empathize with you all, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how you all use your voices.
A child cries in the night, and you parents get up bleary-eyed with bed head - and you comfort them and sing them back to sleep. Your voice does that.
And for several years, that voice - your voice - will deliver all of the knowledge and wisdom that exists in the entire world - at least for that kid.
In those years, your voice and a well-placed Band-Aid will be able to heal every imagined hurt, and even some of real ones.
For your children, your voice can be a balm. It can be magical - with the power to lull to sleep, the power to reveal mysteries, the power to encourage questions, the power to heal hurts.
The life-giving power of love and blessing in your voice.
But at some point in your child’s life, your voice will get some competition from other voices.
And, of course, as far as you are able, you’ll do your best to make sure that those voices are good ones.
Even still, at some point the child will encounter those other types of voices.
The voices that aren’t life-giving.
Voices that may tell the child, in so many words, that she isn’t smart enough, or cool enough, or pretty enough, or rich enough
Voices that say to the child “you are not enough.”
Voices that do not bring with them blessing, but curse.
And, as much as you may want to shepherd them, there will come a time when the child becomes a little more autonomous. They'll start to have some choice about who they’re going to listen to . . .
In fact, almost any voice in the world that they want to listen to will be at their very fingertips.
And instead of your voice holding all of the mysteries of the world,
Your voice will be the voice of some old dork trying to ruin their good time.
I can’t pretend to know what that’s like to grapple with - to invest so much time speaking love and life to your child, only to have other voices get more influence.
I guess the hope is, at that point, that they won’t listen to the voices of bullies. That they won’t let “the wrong crowd” be their guiding voices.
You hope that they’ll learn to filter
That they’ll learn how to tune out the voices that speak words of fear and shame.
And you hope that they’ll learn to give their attention to voices that speak into their lives love and encouragement,
You hope they'll follow voices that direct them towards an abundant, joyous life.
And maybe learning to filter like that
Learning to listen to the right voices
isn’t just a challenge for our children.
You and I live in a world inundated by competing voices. Like, an absolutely unprecedented amount of voices.
Comedian Trevor Noah recently joked3 that CNN turned on the Breaking News banner back in 1994 for the OJ Simpson car chase and never did figure out how to turn it off so it’s just been there alerting us to breaking news for nearly 20 years.
The news, he reminds us, is not always breaking.
And yet we have multiple cable channels that run “Breaking News” 24 hours a day. All of them taking pains to make sure that they keep us just entertained enough or just judgmental enough or just scared enough to come back after the commercial break.
That’s been just SUPER GREAT for our democracy, hasn’t it? (she says sarcastically)
Add to all this the fact that any person with an internet connection can now broadcast their voice around the globe any time of the day or night. And out of that plethora of voices the ones get the most clicks or views are often the loudest and the cruelest.
And Lord have mercy, In the midst of all of this, this is shaping up to be a wildly contentious midterm election year. So at some point in the next six months I may have to throw my phone into the ocean.5
We have so. Many. Voices. Vying for our attention.
What’s even harder for people of faith is how many of those voices clamoring for our attention claim to speak for God.
How do we possibly know which voices to listen to? How do we possibly know, in the midst of this mess, the best way to use our own voices?6
Our scriptures today help us to answer those questions.
Today in the Church calendar is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We just heard several readings that had something to do with sheep or shepherds
Psalm 23, perhaps the best known psalm, talks about how God leads God’s people as a shepherd:
He makes me lie down in green pastures
And leads me beside still waters
He revives my soul
God leading and providing and comforting.
You spread a table before me
You anoint my head with oil
And my cup is running over.
God providing abundance and life for God’s people.
A Good shepherd.
The reading from the revelation to John portrays Jesus as a lamb that is a shepherd, saying:
“For the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd
And he will guide them to springs of the water of life.
They will hunger no more
Thirst no more
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
A good shepherd.
And then there’s the Gospel, where Jesus says:
“My sheep hear my voice and they follow me. I give them abundant life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
My sheep hear my voice
And they follow me.
And I give them abundant life.
A good shepherd.
In fact, in the passage preceding today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has referred to himself as the Good Shepherd. He’s said that there are other voices out there trying to steal and to kill, but that Jesus loves the sheep and will lay down his life for them.
Some of Jesus' fellow religious leaders are pretty offended by this discourse - so they come to him and say - and this paraphrase is not even an exaggeration -“How long will you continue to annoy us, Jesus? If you’re the messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus’ fellow religious leaders ask for a few reasons1:
(1) Some of them don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, because they’ve been listening to voices that say that the Messiah will be a warrior who leads them to a political victory against Rome - and this Jesus dude does not appear to be that guy;
(2) some of them don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah because they’ve been fooled before by people claiming to be the Messiah and they are intent on not getting fooled again2;
(3) and also in this crowd are some religious leaders rightly suspect that Jesus IS the Messiah. And they just wish he’d say it out loud and clear things up for everyone, so that the group can stop disagreeing.
So, when we see this dialogue in which Jesus appears a little harsh saying things like “you do not believe because you don’t belong to my sheep” - note that this is a rather heated discussion between religious leaders.
Jesus is talking to people that he (a) has some amount of influence with and (b) he’s talking to people who have equal or greater social status than him. It’s perhaps helpful to listen to their banter . . . like it’s a family feud. 4
Jesus doesn’t give them a very satisfactory answer. He doesn't “tell them plainly.” Instead, he does something that’s instructive not only to the assembled crowd, but to us today,
Jesus says “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” He’s saying “if you don’t believe the words that I’m saying, look at WHAT THEY DO. Look at how that lines up with the image of God as a Good Shepherd.” In a sea of differing voices, Jesus points to his actions, and the actions that result from the use of his voice.
Here’s what that looks like in John’s Gospel:
Jesus helps people
Jesus heals people.
Jesus elevates those who are beaten down. He refreshes people.
Jesus’ actions give people another chance at life. He revives their souls.
Jesus’ occasional stern words or acts of protest are reserved for those with authority who wield it to curse instead of bless. He “punches up” instead of punching down - which is to say, when Jesus criticizes, he’s never criticizing the powerless.
You’ll never catch Jesus saying “well, if you hadn’t sinned maybe you wouldn’t be blind” and turning someone away; instead he hangs out with the people called sinners and says of them "NO ONE can snatch them out of my hand."
A good shepherd.
By appealing to looking at the fruit of - the results of - his words and actions, Jesus gives us a way to filter out the other voices: people may talk the talk, but do their voices bring into the world hope, and healing, and liberation, and abundance of life?
I suspect that the God who spoke creation into existence
Who breathed life into the world and into you and me and called it all very good,
Wants what’s best for this creation.
And I suspect that, like a gentle parent or a good shepherd,
God hopes that we’ll learn to filter out the other voices.
That we'll learn how to tune out the voices that speak words of fear and shame into the word.
That we'll give our attention to listening to and being voices of love and encouragement,
That we'll follow the voice of the One that calls us each by name, and leads us toward abundant life.
Before I say “Amen” and walk away:
Because I’m in this pulpit, and because it may be a while before I have this mic again,
I’d like to say to you all
Thank you for the seemingly magical way you’ve used your voices -
to reveal mysteries,
to encourage questions,
To heal hurts.
You have shown me the life-giving power of love and blessing.
Thank you for walking with me,
Thank you for teaching me,
Thank you for helping me to discern my calling.
And thank you for helping me to find my voice.
1 - I confess that I did my study and pre-writing with a concussion, and I don’t remember if this was from “Feasting on the Gospels: John” or “Connections: Easter 4C”
2 - New Interpreters Bible, Commentary on John 10.
3 - Transcript of the 2022 White House Correspondents Dinner. https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/se/date/2022-04-30/segment/04
"And that's not the only big change going on at CNN. They just brought on Chris Licht. Yes, my man over there, Chris, as the new head of news. His first order of business, hire a guy who knows how to turn off the breaking news banner, yes. What happened with that? Did they just put it on during the O.J. chase and they never figured out how to get rid of it?
The news is not always breaking. But this is an interesting time for the media world, you know, as with many industries, the pandemic was a major disruption for journalists. But I also think it helped humanize you, honestly. You know, millions of Americans watched TV anchors reporting from inside their own homes. Meanwhile, reporters in print media, were like, we get it, you have homes. Way to show off."
5 - Fun fact, as of May 27th, Courtney will live near the ocean.
6 - truly, sometimes the best way to use our voices is to not.