To whom do we listen?
Sermon on John 10 The Good Shepherd preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
25 April 1999
A hunter sneaked up on a duck and was about to fire when the duck yelled, "Don't shoot and I'll give you a hot tip for the stock market!" The hunter lowered his rifle. "Okay. What's the stock?" "It's a company called Sounds like a Duck," the bird said. "It manufactures a duck call, and the shares are only 65p" The hunter immediately went home and bought three thousand shares, figuring if anyone could determine an effective duck call it would be a duck. But just two weeks later the company went bust. Furious, the hunter drove back to the pond to find the duck for an explanation. "I just lost thousands of pounds because of your lousy tip," the hunter said angrily." "Big deal," the duck replied. "You lost a few thousand pounds, we lost our early warning system."
So what is the moral of that story? Never listen to a duck? Possibly, but the wider message might be to be careful who we do listen to, what we are to believe. Which leaders are worth trusting, and which are counterfeit and do not have our best wishes at heart. This is true of religious leaders, political leaders indeed all who seek to gain the trust and support of others.
Dring Dring goes the Vicarage telephone at dinner time—
'Good evening Mr. Royden, before we go any further I am not trying to sell you anything.....'
'Yes you are and you are a nuisance'
Dring dring goes the Vicarage phone at 3.00am in the morning last week
I waited there was no human voice and then I heard it the sound of an incoming fax, selling me a cheaper way use my telephone.
You and I we are constantly assailed by voices competing for our attention. They try to sell us something or they try to take something from us and we have to be watchful. As a Vicar I am often approached by people seeking money and I am totally cautious, not a penny will be given to support gambling, drug addiction or wasteful idleness, yet even I have been conned by the single mother with a pram routine, only to discover that she gave the pram and baby back to the rightful owner after she had received financial support.
But this is only money. In the passage from our Gospel Jesus is telling his disciples to be careful, 'wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves'. Just because somebody seems genuine and trustworthy don't be too eager to trust, there are thieves out there, who will steal not only your possessions but also your minds and your souls if you let them. They may appear totally above board as did the religious leaders the Pharisees and priests who Jesus warned people about. Just because somebody has a dog collar or belongs to a religious organisation is no reason to give our trust without thinking. Just because somebody is in government, or holds a position of power and authority is no reason to blindly give our trust.
Be careful whom you trust, be careful what you believe and who you follow—that is the message of the passage this week. And what a week for that to be the Gospel passage. Perhaps it was best to start with humour this week because it seems we need some relief from the misery which is becoming more and more a feature of our lives.
- The ethnic cleansing
- The killing of schoolchildren
- The indiscriminate nail bombing of a street only a few miles away in Brixton.
In two of these situations, and probably in the third as well, an important issue is that of who people choose to listen to? Or to put it another way—
'Which voices are to be heard and followed?'
In Littleton, Colorado, two young men had accustomed their ears to hear hate rock music from Germany and to take in hate websites on their computers. Their ears were accustomed to the blast of pipe bombs, sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatic pistols. A police officer speaking against gangs like the trenchcoat mafia had spoken to the students in Columbine High school only three weeks before, warning the students not to get caught up in such gangs. He admits that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were probably sitting in that audience and for some months had been putting aside pipe bombs and firearms to use in their massacre of Columbine High School. Why didn't these two children hear the voice and the message of this police officer? Most probably it was because they had given over their lives, energies and faculties to all that was evil from the history of the Second World War: the jackbooted, long-coated SS troops of Hitler, the speeches of Hitler, the sick message of Marilyn Manson and other "Goth" groups bent on destroying society as we know it. They had no place in their ears for the message of that police officer, let alone for the words of Christ spoken to them in church and from teachers. be careful who you listen to, be careful who you trust.
Kosovo. I never thought I would see the day when the Prime Minister Tony Blair was seen as a 'hawk' advocating the bombing of Yugoslavia and yet we are now five weeks into the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and we find ourselves asking, “where will it all end?” Some politicians are pushing for an all-out ground assault on Kosovo and Serbia as the only way to bring this conflict to an end. Others say we should stop the bombing unilaterally and move back to the peace tables. A great many of us are caught somewhere in the middle, not fully approving of the bombing but aghast at the ethnic cleansing that has stripped hundreds of thousands from their homes. I never thought that I would hear the MP Claire Short justifying the bombing the of a television and media centre in Yugoslavia where civilians had been killed. But what is clear from what she said is that there is an interesting phenomenon happening in Yugoslavia. As well as a military war the war there has become a media war. The Serbs are broadcasting untruths about the situation in Kosovo and that is why NATO now feels justified in targeting their broadcasting sources. The hope is that a more accurate message from Radio Free Europe or other free world sources will become the dominant message.
In both of these cases what people hear is of vital importance. It is important that the right words break through the hate and the false messages. You and I seek to tune our ears to listen to the voice of Jesus - the shepherds voice. In our crazy mixed up world his voice so often gets drowned out. His voice of reassurance, the voice of the one who knows his sheep. There are voices of strangers from which we must run. Voices that criticise, pass judgement, belittle, scorn, or condemn. Unfortunately they are often the dominant voices in society. They are so loud that others voices are never heard. Now we gather together and we listen to the voice of the shepherd. There are all manner of false teachers, there are all manner of competing voices which seek to attract our attention. It may not be a Milosevic, or a Hitler, it may come in the subtle guise of a newspaper columnist in the daily mail who tells us that all refugees are scroungers.
What is heard in both of these instances becomes so important. Or to put it more correctly—who is heard.
I wish I was better at names. At a wedding at Putnoe Heights Church a couple of weeks ago after the vows, I said that we were going to sign the registers whilst our organist Mr. ....... (pause), and I could not for the life of me think of Clive Simmons name. If you go out of church I am always frightened to use names because I get them wrong so often. I am normally alright when I don't try but when I am under pressure it goes and Barbaras get mixed up with Margarets all over the place. Its not helped by the fact that every Sunday we can shake hands with hundreds of people. I do wish I was better at it because it is important. A name is the opposite of something which is nameless, anonymous, or indistinguishable from something else which is just like it. It is the ultimate sign of respect.
Jesus knows us as individuals and he calls us by name not because he has found it in a telephone book like the telesales marketing teams. he calls us by name because he knows us intimately, because he made us, and loved us and died for us. And even though he is God he addresses us by name as the ultimate sign of respect. And in our ever increasingly electronic age, that's significant. Our lives are driven by numbers: chequebook numbers, driver's license numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers. We have been reduced to numbers, much like the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps who had numbers tattooed on their arms. These prisoners were not human beings with names, just faceless, impersonal numbers.
It makes it easier to hate and kill numbers or categories. Those Germans, those Jews, those Arabs, those Catholics, those blacks, those Serbs, those Kosovo Albanians—no personal names, only lumped-together categories with no personality. All abstractions. Easy to dismiss. Easy to hate. Easy to kill.
The story is told of an old Indian sheep farmer whose
neighbour's dogs were always killing his sheep. It got so bad that he knew
he had to do something. He gave two lambs to his neighbour's children. In
due time the lambs grew into sheep and had other sheep and then the
neighbour and his children got to see the sheep not as a impersonal herd,
but as something warm and fuzzy, something personal with individual traits
and a history and names. They soon penned in their dogs. Unless you live and
eat and sleep with the sheep, almost become one like them, then they will
never be unique. They will all look alike.
It is the same with us. Unless we get to know others as persons, as individuals, then they are just members of a certain group or class of people. Then they look just like everyone else in the crowd. It is an interesting aspect of prejudice that as soon someone gets to know another person who belongs to a group against whom they are prejudiced, they do not change their perception of the group. They remove that person they like from the group. If you were to ask them about that little trick of the mind, they would probably say something like: "Oh, they're not like the rest of their kind". Curious, isn't it? The basis of prejudice and racism, rejection and persecution is this: reducing people to categories, making them abstractions, not knowing their names, not calling them by name. This depersonalises them.
In order to overcome prejudice, we must see people as individuals with a name and a history. It is interesting that in Littleton, Colorado, the killers targeted minorities, people who could be easily categorised and depersonalised. We must strive to understand others to see them as Jesus sees them, as names, as individuals special to him, whom he loves and for whom he died too. As one of the students in Littleton noted that massacre probably resulted from the , fact that the group were picked on and ostracised by the other students in the school.
The Jesus of our gospel knows his sheep and calls them by name. No abstractions for him. No generic groupings will do. We matter to him personally. All people matter to him personally. The Good Shepherd is the God of Jews and Gentiles; the God of rejects, lepers, and thieves; the God of you, me, and them; the God who knows all of us by name. He is the God of all humanity and we need to treat one another accordingly. I said that the sermon was about who we listen to and I have spent time stressing the importance of not listening to those who would cheat and steal. For us and for our children we must commit ourselves to ensure that the voice of Jesus is clearly heard. The picture of a shepherd in Palestine was that of one who went out and led the sheep, rather than following behind with a stick or a Landrover. It was the clear and audible voice of the shepherd which the sheep followed behind. Now you and I are to be the voice of Christ and we must be clear in our presentation of his message so that others may be able to hear and follow. If our words or commitment is uncertain then who will follow? And so we must commit ourselves to be true to the gospel which has been entrusted to us. Prepared to stand up for our faith, to challenge that which is untrue and to lead people to the safety of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Additional material not used in this sermon
Jesus as the gate
But what about the image of Jesus as the gate of the sheepfold? How can a person be a gate? And what was all that about thieves and robbers who only come to steal the sheep? Who were they, what did he mean about climbing over the wall, and are such people still around today?
In this chapter John is continuing the attack on the Pharisees which ended chapter nine. The hired hands who served the sheep so badly are the Pharisees who excommunicated the blind man in the previous chapter. The Pharisees don't recognise Jesus, but the people of God symbolised by the blind man who received his sight, do recognise him and hear his voice. So the Pharisees are the thieves and robbers who come only to steal the sheep and who climb over the wall to do so. They dared not come in through the gate because Jesus himself is the gate.
How can this be? Sheepfolds in the East had no gate. The shepherd himself formed the gate by lying across the opening at night. Thus if wild beasts came to attack the sheep, they would have to first attack the shepherd. The shepherd protected his sheep by literally offering his life for them. Thieves and robbers would be unable to approach the sheepfold via the gate, for fear of the shepherd. So the only way for them to get at the sheep was by the devious means of climbing the wall.
Given that the thieves and robbers were identified by Jesus as the Pharisees, the religious rulers of the day, who are today's thieves and robbers and how can they be identified? Perhaps today's thieves and robbers are those who attempt to steal our souls from us. Those who marginalise spirituality, those who teach us to worship material things and the money that can buy them, those who teach us to worship sex, those who erode our principles until anything sleazy is OK as long as it's fun. And those who make all this sound as though it's good and right.
The only way to resist such thieves and robbers is to filter everything which enters the sheepfold via Jesus the gate. This isn't to say we should live only by the rules. That was the mistake made by the Pharisees. They believed they would reach God simply by following the rules. But Jesus was very clear that it's the heart which matters. If Jesus is to be our gate, we need to open ourselves to him so that everything we see or hear, say or think or do becomes instinctively filtered through him. Then whatever happens in our lives, however tempted we are by subtle or seductive advertising and subtle or seductive media coverage, we shall be kept safe. For he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. Jesus is the way to real life, life which is overflowing with love, with fulfilment, with a new sort of power, with vibrant energy. This is life in the sheepfold, and the only way to it is through the gate.
Some interesting things are shared about sheep
- Sheep go astray, but they can return.
- Sheep hear well, and they know the voice of their shepherd.
- Sheep know how a shepherd is supposed to act.
- And sheep grow when they return to the fold regularly and nurture one another.
Just as importantly, these scriptures describe traits of the Shepherd.
- He comes through the gate.
- He has a familiar voice.
- He leads his flocks where they will be safe and well nourished.
- He goes in search of sheep who get themselves lost and brings them home
- When they return, He welcomes them.
Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd [John 10:11,14] who knows his flock and cares for them even to the extent that he lays down his life for them. His followers know him and answer his call [See John 10:2-4]. His purpose is fullness of life for his followers: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly [John 10:10]. It is very likely that Jesus had in mind the warning of the prophets to bad shepherds who exploited the flock rather than caring for them as he did. [See Ezekiel 34:1-11; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Zechariah 11:15-17.]