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The Silence of the Sheep

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, April 17, 2005

Acts 2:42–47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19–25
John 10:1–10


I'm going to tell you a story about a bunch of sheep. This is a really novel allegory that I just made up myself, because everybody in modern Canada really relates to the whole sheep-shepherd schema. OK, OK, that's not true. Of course. Around here, we more likely use the Jesus–disciple paradigm to understand sheep and shepherds rather than the other way around. But humour me.

So there are a bunch of sheep, and they've been wandering around in the countryside for quite a while, eating the grass and whatever it is that sheep do with their spare time. Playing follow the leader, maybe. But that's exactly the problem: they don't really have a leader. Well, they don't have a shepherd. They have a whole bunch of guys who come through every so often and herd them around, but these guys seem to be either spotty teenagers who couldn't get jobs at McDonald's or stern disciplinarian types who can barely tolerate the sheep and seem to delight in coming up with intricate sets of rules about what the sheep can and can't do, so that the sheep are spending half of their time wondering what they're supposed to do and the other half trying to find something they in fact are allowed to do. They have a bunch of guys who claim to be shepherds, but nobody who really quite seems like one.

Until someone comes along and calls to them and they just know it's the shepherd. It's the one they've been waiting for. The one who can tell them where to go and what to do, the one who really cares for them and shows them some point in their lives. (Man, sheep with a philosophical bent. I'm really stretching this, aren't I?)

Well, or, OK, not all of the sheep recognize the shepherd. Some of them are quite used to their habits, and some of them just don't trust someone they've never seen before, no matter how much shepherdly authority he seems to have, and a lot of them are a little wary of this shepherd because he's taking them off to some new pastures. Why should they give up what they have?

But some of them follow this shepherd. The shepherd says, "Come along," and they just stop chewing on that beleaguered patch of clover and baa, baa, baa, off they go to follow him. And he shows them new pastures and he cares for them and he fights off all the lousy psuedo-shepherds and they are so entranced, so happy with this shepherd. Life is idyllic. Like a pastoral scene or something.

And then… the shepherd's gone. Something bad happens and the shepherd has to go. Disappears. And it's just them by themselves – well, and these other sheep who didn't follow the shepherd, and the lousy pseudo-shepherds, the callow youths and splenetic curmudgeons. They're stunned. Then some of them see their shepherd again, travelling incognito. The shepherd tells them that they're on their own, and they should go forth and live life as they've been shown how, according to the shepherd's guidance. And then the shepherd disappears again, for good this time.

And so they carry on! But… they're sheep! They're not good at independent thinking, however philosophical they might be! It's a new thing for them. So they're spending all their time trying to remember what the shepherd said. They're happy enough at first, this lovely little flock, but eventually they're wandering along and they hit a new piece of pasture, and they can't agree what to do. One of them says, "I reme-e-ember the shepherd calling me, and the shepherd called me to go left, so I'm going le-e-eft." And another says, "Bu-u-ut when we were in a place like this before, with a little hill just there, I remember that the she-e-epherd led us to the ri-i-ight!" And then another says, "Those were di-i-ifferent places! This is a new place we've never bee-ee-een before! We have to consider the underlying pa-a-attern of the shepherd's guidance! It's in the spirit of the shepherd to go ahea-ea-ead!" And pretty soon it's "baaaa" this and "baaaaa" that and "baaa" the other, and they're all heading off in different directions. Baaah! Baaaaah! Bah!

And that is the heart of what's been driving me nuts about this gospel reading. These sheep don't recognize a stranger's voice, right? They only respond to the call of the shepherd? And Jesus is the shepherd, and Christians are the sheep? And not just Christians, maybe, either – a couple of verses on after our reading ends Jesus says he has other sheep as well, and take that as you will. And yet… a lot of us don't seem to be hearing the same call. We're heading in different directions, we disagree on all sorts of things… And it's because the shepherd's not standing in front of us anymore. When Jesus was with the original group of Christians, he was always there to give instruction, even if it was perplexing at times; he was always right on the spot to turn to, speaking very clearly, out loud, in the language they all knew, and they all could hear him when he spoke. And even for a little while after Jesus no longer walked with them, they had such a happy little commune – isn't that scene from Acts lovely? Everyone was in awe, many signs and wonders were being done, everyone had glad and generous hearts, and it was just like some happy commune straight out of the popular image of the 1960s. But I think we know what became of those communes. We certainly know what became of this happy little community of believers. The very fact that the author of Acts takes the time to describe this idyllic situation shows us that it did not remain thus. They started arguing pretty early on, and they haven't stopped. We haven't stopped.

But the big mistake here is we're not sheep. We might emulate sheep quite a bit. We might even wear wool. But we can be much more. And, more importantly, Jesus isn't just a shepherd. When a shepherd goes, he's gone. When a president, or a hero, or a great philosopher disappears from among us, we are no longer in communication with that person. But reality doesn't stand still. Things change, and we want to know what the person would say about this, or that, or for that matter what the things the person said mean. A lot of us here have spent time in academia. You tell me how many people make careers arguing about what some historical thinker did or didn't mean by this or that. And that's what we do with Jesus. But there's a difference. Jesus was not just another ordinary human being. Jesus was speaking for God. Jesus gave voice to the holy spirit. That's a whole other level.

Of course, the frustrating thing about god is that god is everywhere and in everything, but god's not going to walk up to you and say, "No, no, no, I meant this." If you want to know where to look for god, there's a nice hint in Luke 17:21: "the kingdom of God" – kingdom, dominion, we have limits in English but you know what it means – "is within you." Jesus came and spoke in person and out loud because we hadn't listened, but he spoke to tell us to listen. If I cling just to Jesus' words spoken then and there and argue about them alone, it's as though Jesus walked right up to me and pointed a finger right into my sternum and said, "Here! Look here!" and I looked at the finger and followed the finger wherever it went. God speaks to us directly, within. We need to listen.

But there's an obvious problem with this: there are plenty of people who are quite sure of what God's telling them, and they don't all agree. To say the least. And that's because God's not going to make it easy for us. How are we going to develop, find the fullness of what we're meant to be, if we have it handed to us on a silver platter or shouted to us through a bullhorn? It's also because we're all different, and we all have different things we need to do and different mistakes we need to make. And it's also because we're doing a lot of running after our desires, and keeping our counsel, and always trying to argue it out with ourselves, and worrying about the things we think we're expected to do, and believing our own eyes and all the messages we're getting from here, there and everywhere… We may not be sheep, but if you listen inside our heads, there's a lot of baaa, baaaa, baah.

And where is god's voice in all of this? I'd like to quote from yet another bit of scripture that's not in today's readings: first Kings 19: 11 and 12. I'm going to read it in the most familiar translation, because I love the way it sounds, all the masculine terms notwithstanding: "And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks into pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice."

A still small voice. In the New Revised Standard Version it says "a sound of sheer silence."


That's the sound of listening. And we do need to listen to others, our friends, our adversaries, as well; we're all in this together, and we can help each other understand, although the path one must walk will not be the same path another must – we all have our discoveries and mistakes to make. But we need to remember: we're not just stuck arguing about what someone two thousand years ago said. God is not dead. We have a responsibility, each one of us, to seek the still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, where our true guide is waiting.



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