Sunday, May 11, 2014

knowing the voice of the good shepher

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was growing up we had a dog called Blackie. Blackie was a terrier of nondescript breed; she wasn't even totally black – she had a black back and some brown over the rest of her. But for some reason we called her Blackie – and she didn't seem to mind. Blackie was a barky kind of dog, like a lot of small dogs are, and she seemed to think she owned the street we lived on and that it was her duty to stand guard against all comers. We lived on a cul-de-sac with a pedestrian entrance on the end where the cars couldn't drive in; and our house was number six of 14 so we were near enough the middle. Cars she pretty much left alone, but the moment a pedestrian appeared at either end of the street she would leap up from her post by the street light outside our gate and start barking her challenge. Being a small dog and not completely stupid as soon as the person got near, she retreated inside our gates to continue her loud warning from the safety of our driveway as they went past and then emerge to see them off with some further barking until they reached the end of the road. In those days before the advent of double glazing, I'm sure it drove the neighbours mad, but no one ever complained. Some of the passers by didn't always appreciate it. I often heard them call her something like 'shut up, you foolish dog' or words to that effect, but to no avail – nothing they said could silence our little dog.

Now as I'm sure you all know, dogs have rubbish eyesight, so from a distance Blackie couldn't tell friend from foe. Which meant that when I appeared at the end of the road on my way home from school I was greeted by her furious barking, warning me that I was on her territory now. I would usually let her continue her angry tirade as I walked past a few houses, and then I would click my tongue, give a little whistle, and say 'here girl.' Well, what a transformation! The barking would stop immediately, she would hurtle down the road towards me, and skid to a halt by my feet and roll over onto her back so that I could give her tummy a tickle. Once that was done she would spring back to her feet and race back to our gate, and then turn around and race back again for another tickle, repeating the process again and again until I reached home.

I thought of the way that Blackie would listen to me but not a stranger while reading today's Gospel, of the sheep knowing and following their own shepherd's voice, but not that of a stranger. The image Jesus is using here is one that would have been familiar to those listening to him in rural Israel at the time. Back then, shepherds of a village took their flocks out to pasture during the day; and at night they brought them back to a common sheepfold, made of dry-stone walls, much like the ones you'll in many places in our own country, especially the west. One or two would stand guard in the night, to protect against thieves and wolves. Come the next morning, when it was time to go back out to pasture, the shepherds would come and throw open the gate and let the sheep out. The sheep, of course, were all mixed up together inside the fold. How to sort them out back into the separate flocks? Nothing simpler. Each would call out to his sheep. The sheep, despite their reputation for not being the cleverest of animals, were smart enough to know the voice of the one who cared for them, fed them, and protected them. And each would go to the voice of her own shepherd.

The sheepfold is the Church that Christ established, and his is the voice of the shepherd … a shepherd who is more than a simple pastor, but God himself – for as we hear in our psalm today 'The Lord is my shepherd' … but how are we to be sure we hear his voice? The sheep in his story knew their shepherd from day to day contact with him; just as my dog Blackie knew my voice from being fed and being taken for walks by me … but how are we to know the voice of Christ, especially when there are so many voices that claim to speak in his name, yet often saying such very different things?

One way, I would suggest, is to carefully consider if they speak with the voice of the Church, by which I mean is what they say consistent with what the Church has always taught. In the Creed every Sunday we declare that we believe in an Apostolic Church, by which we mean one that passes on the same faith that Christ entrusted to the Apostles. So teaching that differs radically from what has been taught from the earliest days is not likely to be the voice of Christ.

Next, consider if what you hear is consistent with all of scripture, or if it is just one verse or a few verses being twisted to form a message that is not in accord with the whole of the word of God. For example, people take Christ's words that we should love one another and act as if that means we must accept and praise everything that anybody does; that we should never judge their actions; that all we should be concerned about if we love someone is that they are happy. And yet if we read those words of Christ in the context of all of sacred scripture, we know that to truly love someone means not only desiring but working for their ultimate good; to love someone means wanting them to go to heaven. And you can not do that by praising or ignoring the behaviour that Christ himself teaches leads them from the narrow road that leads there. Those who claim to speak with the authority of Christ must speak in a way that is consistent with all of Scripture.

And a third way of knowing if the voice that claims to speak for Christ and his Church is true is to consider whether the teaching they offer is easy or hard. It was Christ who told his followers to take up their cross and follow him – teaching with no cross in it, no hardship, no self-denial, is not that of our Lord. He knew his teaching could be hard – yet what did he say when his disciples complained and said his teaching was hard in John's gospel and left? Did he call them back and offer to make it easier for them? No, he looked at those who remained and asked if they wanted to leave also. He wasn't going to change his truth for the sake of popularity. And St Peter's reply is instructive also. He said, 'where should we go Lord? You have the words of eternal life.' And that is it in a nutshell. If we listen to those who offer 'softer' teaching, we may have an easier life, one without the cross, but they are not the words of eternal life; they are not the voice of Christ.

Blackie continued in her noisy ways up until the end. Strangers were given a good barking at; nothing they said could quiet her; the only voice she would listen to was her master's voice right up until the day she was buried with full doggie honours in a corner of our back-garden. She may have been an annoyance to passers by and neighbours, but no one could doubt she was faithful to the end. And so too must we remain faithful: we must, as they did in the early days of the Church, devote ourselves 'to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.' And we must run from the voice of strangers, and follow only the voice of the Good Shepherd, the one who died for our sins and 'by whose wounds we are healed', 'the shepherd and guardian of our souls' who is with us always until the end of the ages. Amen

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