You can listen to my sermon for Easter 4C on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.
There is something that is supposed to be very comforting about Good Shepherd Sunday. Across the Church today people are seeing the image of a dark haired, blue eyed, Brad Pitt of a Jesus; imagining they are the fluffy white lamb he is carrying across his shoulders. We take solace in the soothing words of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” We hear the words of Jesus and give thanks that we are among those who have heard his voice and followed. But if I’m honest, I’m having a hard time with Good Shepherd Sunday this year because it feels like I haven’t heard the voice of the Good Shepherd in a while. I’m pretty sure it isn’t because Jesus has stopped talking to me. I’m guessing it is because I’ve been distracted and quit listening.
In fact, I know it is because I’ve been distracted. I’ve been distracted by my frustration over the failure of the three services experiment. I’ve been distracted by the financial pressure we’ve been feeling around here. I’ve been distracted by my sabbatical, my Doctor of Ministry Thesis, and my new role as Diocesan Secretary. Sure, I’ve been cranking out sermons, Bible studies, and pastoral visits, but in many ways, I feel like I’ve just been going through the motions. At some point, I lost perspective on the reality that Jesus didn’t die and rise again to ensure that that Draughting Theology would meet on Wednesday night; that the Episcopal Church Women would have their annual bake sale; or even that church would happen on Sunday morning. I’ve been distracted from the mission of the Good a Shepherd by all the maintenance it takes to keep things going simply for the sake of keeping things going. If you’ve noticed, you’ve been kind enough not to mention it, but I can’t help but wonder if you’ve been feeling it too? Have you noticed that maybe you don’t feel like coming to church quite as often? Maybe you’ve noticed that there aren’t quite as many people volunteering at Foley Elementary School. There isn’t quite as much food coming in for Ecumenical Ministries. Maybe we have all fallen into maintenance mode? Have you heard the voice of Jesus recently? Or have you, like me, erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep? Have you, like me, followed too much the devices and desires of your own hearts?
When one is a priest whose life work it is to pray, study Scripture, and administer the sacraments, the realization that the voice of the shepherd has been off in the faint distance, can be freak out inducing. Penny, Keith, and Cassie all experienced portions of that from me this week, but once my mind settled, I found myself drawn back into the Bible for words of comfort. “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” No one, not even myself, can snatch me out of the hands of the Good Shepherd. That is good news. No, that was great news for me this week. Nothing, not even my own doubts, fears, and frustrations can cause me to fall away from the love of God. There is nowhere I can wander that the Good Shepherd won’t find me. Even when it seems like I can barely hear his voice, the Good Shepherd is still there, calling me by name, inviting me to follow him.
The key to finding my way back from maintaining the institution to following Jesus’ call to mission is tuning my ear to hear his voice above the monkey chatter of my own mind. Maintenance brings with it stress, anxiety, frustration, and even fear. Those noises create a cacophony of sound that rattles around my mind from morning ‘til night, and occasionally wakes me up at 3am just to taunt me. Shutting them out can be difficult, but consistently listening for the voice of Jesus will slowly tune out all those other sounds, and one day, the voice of the Good Shepherd will once again come in loud and clear. So, how do I eliminate the monkey chatter? In my experience, the best way to keep out the noise is: to take a walk, to pray with regularity, to study scripture daily, and to take counsel from fellow disciples. In some of the most important moments of my life, I’ve done all four.
Fourteen years ago, I was a senior in college, getting ready to start a career crushing fingers on the corporate ladder. In late February, I set off for Pittsburgh to propose to Cassie at Jubilee, a conference for Christian college students meant to help them better understand how to be a disciple of Jesus in their chosen career path. With the ring in my jacket pocket, I sat in on the Saturday afternoon breakout session for business majors. I was going to ask Cassie to marry me in a few hours, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the session, but my ears perked up when the speaker ended the first half of our time by asking a question that forever changed my life. “Are you studying business to further God’s kingdom in some way or do you just want to get money and buy stuff?” Up until that moment, “get money and buy stuff” had been my answer and I was perfectly happy with it, but in an instant, that all changed. “Get money and buy stuff” was no longer an acceptable answer. I realized I hadn’t been listening for the Good Shepherd’s call in my life, and I freaked out.
I didn’t return for the second half of the session. I grabbed my Bible, took a walk, sat down by a fountain, and prayed my guts out. For several hours, I flipped through the Bible, looking for what it all meant. I prayed that God might show me what his will was for my life. And as the time went by, slowly an image came into focus. God was calling me to give up my will in order to serve him in full-time, ordained ministry. It seemed like God wanted me to become an Episcopal priest, which led to my second freak out of the day. Surely that wasn’t right. It had to be the wild wanderings of my mind. I decided to leave the ring in my pocket for an extra hour and ask my favorite disciple of Jesus, Cassie, what she thought about it all. When I told her that I thought I was being called to be an Episcopal priest, her response was, “I’ve been wondering when this conversation would happen.” The voice of the Good Shepherd was loud and clear.
Taking intentional time to pray, study the Bible, take a walk with God, and talk with a fellow disciple made the stress and anxiety of that moment of crisis fade away as the voice of the Good Shepherd came into focus, and I’m certain that the same will be true of this one too. That’s because Jesus promised it would be that way. Nothing can snatch us away from the Good Shepherd. God, who is greater than everything, will never let me go. God, who is greater than everything, will never let you go. He who knows us each by name promises to seek us out, to find us, and to invite us, again and again, to follow him. I’m working on hearing his voice again, and I hope you will join me in listening as God calls us to get out of maintenance mode and turns our focus to his mission: restoring all people to right relationship with him. Open our ears, O faithful Good Shepherd, that we might hear your voice, and follow where you lead. Amen.