A sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 17th April 2016 by Canon Dr Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Reading John 10.22-30
In the hubbub of the world, which voices are you drawn to? Students from Godolphin School (whom we welcome today) have been looking at this question, some in relation to the US elections - Donald Trump: ‘irritating and unappealing’; Hilary Clinton: not wowed but ‘better than Trump’ - and others in relation to school: some felt that Siri, the automated voice on Apple devices, carries more weight - say, over how to spell a word - than the voice of a teacher. Stella their chaplain observes that much student communication is not through speech but through pictures and phrases on Snapchat and Instagram. What counts as trustworthy there?
We hear the gospel reading this morning as a text, but it’s a scene from an oral, voice-based culture, and people find Jesus’ voice a mystery voice. Is he someone they should listen to? Is this the voice of the messiah? Or not? Jesus says that they shouldn’t need to ask: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.’
Now, I'm no sheep expert - I generally encounter them by the kilo - but I know that ancient Middle Eastern sheep management wasn’t like ours. We must imagine different flocks herded together in the same pen, with lots of baa-ing and calls of different shepherds. Each flock, though, can pick out their shepherd’s voice; and they follow it, because that’s the voice of the one who will feed and protect them; just like Jesus’ true disciples, who follow his voice among all the others competing for their attention.
Does Jesus’ voice still matter? Yes. Everyone says so, and everyone’s sure that he would say the same as they do. Here’s Elton John on same-sex marriage,
If Jesus Christ was alive today, I cannot see him, as the Christian person that he was, and the great person that he was, saying this could not happen.
And Richard Dawkins,
Someone as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.
Jesus, however, is not a ventriloquist’s dummy I can get to say whatever I feel is right and true. I need to hear his voice. I need to hear it because it is the voice of God. In the Bible, on page one, God’s voice speaks the universe into existence – ‘“Let there be light,” and there was’ (Genesis 1.1) – that’s the voice you hear when Jesus speaks: as he says today, ‘the Father and I are one’.
The Easter message is that Jesus is alive today: the God who spoke through Jesus still speaks. We’re not talking about a voice reducible to an MP3 file (or cassette tape, if you're old school) but we have to borrow these words - ‘voice’, ‘speak’ - from everyday experience as the best we’ve got to describe the way that God encounters us. But how do you ‘hear’ God’s ‘voice’? Let’s say you manage to find some quiet space and an idea, ‘comes’ to you. Where from? Is it from God?
The way to start testing that possibility is to compare it with the what you hear in the Bible, a library of books written by people who have recognised the voice of God. We hear the Bible at every service, and there have never been more resources help us read it for ourselves. The promise is that, if we do that, we shall hear the distinctive tones of God's voice, the Word made flesh in Jesus.
Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice. Today is the Church of England’s Vocations Sunday, a day to pay particular attention to the conviction that God speaks to us with some purpose, that there is a ‘calling’, a vocation, for each of us. But ‘vocation’ can be an off-putting word: in society at large, it describes jobs that are important but not very well paid; in the church, it’s often used when someone does a rather dramatic thing, like become a priest, or a nun. And if that’s not you, then it seems that ‘vocation’ isn’t you either. Not so. Back to the gospel reading.
We hear today verses from the end of John 10. In verse 3, Jesus has already been talking about how a good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name,’ and that is another echo of page one of the Bible. In the book Genesis we hear God in the vocation business for the first time: ‘God separated the light from the darkness…God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night’; and so on, with ‘Sky’, ‘Earth’, ‘Sea’ - and people (Genesis 1). So when God calls, God calls by name. This is the heart of vocation: God’s call to be, and to be me, to be the bearer of my own name; to live the life that is mine to live, not a copy of someone else’s; to be the real me, not some fantasy version. And what fantasies we have - and anti-fantasies that make you say, ‘I could never do that…’
I used to have a job interviewing people who had a hunch that God was calling them to be priests. A common theme of those conversations was the journey from fantasy to truth. One candidate was in financial services. He told me how he’d thought he was indispensable and so had to be endlessly contactable. Then came a car crash, and he realised he was important, but not in the way he had imagined. He began to discover his true self - and started switching his mobile off more often. Another had long known that God was calling her to something, but she’d never considered priesthood, because she had only ever seen it done by - as she put it - ‘clever men from Cambridge’ (she’d had a rather deprived church upbringing). Both are now fruitfully ordained.
For both people, what changed was 'in here' - but an agent of that change was what other people said to them. So, on this Vocations Sunday, we have to help each other. I know what I’m called, but it was a name that others gave to me. I can’t say who I am, not completely. Some of my true self I cannot work out for myself: it needs to be spoken to me. It is spoken most deeply by God, and one of the ways God does that is through another human voice.
So if you find that time of quiet today, listen among the noises in the sheep pen for God calling your name. Then you might say those words on the bookmark you got with your service sheet,
‘Lord, what do you want to me to do?’
What comes to you - what God ‘says’ to you - may be about you, and it may be about someone else. God might help you see that person slightly differently: you’re used to seeing them as, say, office worker, grandparent, student, but then you realise: he's really easy to talk to; she’s so good at getting to the heart of things; he seems so calm; people around her are often laughing.
If such a revelation comes to you, please say something to that person. Your words may carry the voice they need to hear in the noise of the sheep pen, and that could start the unfolding of a vocation. It might lead into a church ministry - perhaps a public ministry as a lay minister or a priest - but the call of God can just as often be to non-churchy things, even financial services. That’s jumping ahead, though. What happens first is that the person sees a little more of him- or herself than before, a little more of the person God is calling them to be.
Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice. Among all the voices saying stuff they don't need to hear, your words may help someone recognise the voice that matters. What a wonderful thing to be able to do. And who knows where the Good Shepherd may lead them - thanks to you?
God calling by name - a point I owe to Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement, ‘Vocation’, DLT 1994, pages 173-4.