When do you hear the voice of someone you trust? What does their voice sound like in your mind or in your memory? How did you come to trust them? Did their words just make sense, as their values fit with your worldview? Or did they do something to prove themselves trustworthy to you?
Several weeks ago, during the season of Lent, we read the long narrative about a man who was born blind, marginalized from society and left to beg for money so he could support himself. Jesus came along, calling himself the light of the world, and then he spit on the ground and made mud and put it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash his face—after the man did that, miraculously, he could see.
But the man had not seen Jesus. All he knew was the sound of his voice.
That story about giving to a man his sense of sight happens just before this story we’ve read today, when Jesus is talking about sheep who won’t follow the voice of anyone else but the shepherd whom they trust. Jesus is saying, to anyone who will listen, even sheep know the difference between the voice of their shepherd and the voice of a thief.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there with the images—he isn’t a shepherd who paternalistically decides what’s best for the sheep, or who abuses them by fencing them into tight spaces. Jesus also says “I am the gate for the sheep.” Not just to separate who’s in from who’s out, but the freedom to come in and to go out. The gate works both ways, of course. And that’s good news, because we need Jesus with us on both sides of the gate: in here and out there.
These are ways to understand the kind of God we worship—not an idea or a list of beliefs that must be checked off before someone is worthy to enter God’s presence. Our God is the one who heals. Our God can be perceived through human senses—sight and sound and touch…and earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus already said, “I am the bread of life,” so that addresses the human senses of smell and taste as well.
And how do we come to trust this God? Jesus sums up his purpose when he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Where is abundant life happening? Where is healing happening—healing of wounds, healing of relationships? Where do you find abundance like that which is pictured in psalm 23 in the scene of a banquet table—my head is anointed with oil and my cup is so full that it’s running over? Where do you find welcome, and the freedom to come in and go out, and liberation from oppressive systems or unhelpful frameworks? These are the things to pay attention to.
And who is showing you what abundant life looks like? Who is with you to help you to heal? Who is welcoming you to the table? Who is encouraging your freedom and your agency and your liberation? And what do their voices sound like? These are the voices to listen to.
The world is filled with the voices of thieves who want to steal your money or sell you something you don’t really need or distract you from what’s important or take away your sense of peace or manipulate you by playing on your fears. We spend a lot of our time, maybe most of our week, hearing these voices and filtering the noise, which is a lot of work.
It takes some discipline and some embrace of wisdom to develop your sense of hearing the voice of the shepherd, to know when you’re in the presence of safety, a God who heals and welcomes into abundant life.
Scripture points us in the direction of abundant life, which is why it’s worth returning to. It feels like we read psalm 23 in worship all the time, and some of us see psalm 23 often in artwork or wall hangings (like we have in the church’s library). Some of you recited psalm 23 daily as part of your school routine. Because these words are helpful and important, good for remembering when times are difficult or confusing.
No one sings a lullaby to a baby who is already sleeping peacefully. You sing the calming words while the baby is screaming or fussy, a steady voice and a warm embrace—you are safe and you are loved, and you can trust this voice.
You might not think of psalm 23 while you’re enjoying a sunny day in an actual green pasture, or wherever you happen to feel calm or at peace. But you need the reminder of psalm 23 when you’re in the valley of the shadow of death! That’s when memory verses are valuable.
And these words of assurance have sustained so many generations of the faithful ones who have come before us. Our ancestors, our grandparents and their grandparents, called on God for deliverance. They had moments of fear and uncertainty. They persevered through wars and economic downturns. They learned to hear the voice of the shepherd, and they handed their knowledge on to us, too.
Today this congregation has a meeting to approve updates to our congregational constitution, which might not sound like the most exciting reason to gather, but it is important work. This constitution is part of the way we covenant with each other to be in community and to continue the work that God has given to this congregation. There are procedures given for how we elect officers to make decisions on behalf of the congregation—these people make up our church council. There are protocols for how to steward a relationship with a pastor, and there are also guidelines for addressing conflict.
And—guess what!—we’re even going to read part of the constitution today during worship! The whole of chapter two is the statement of faith, and this is part of the constitution that’s determined by the ELCA, which means our congregation can’t make changes to this part. In case you never read it before, you’ll see it now! If you don’t understand everything in it, like “what’s the unaltered Augsburg Confession?” then ask some questions. Asking questions such a Lutheran thing to do.
It’s important to make updates from time to time, as language changes and as procedures shift. We don’t have to keep everything exactly the same. Like changing the words in the song we sang earlier. Usually we sing “This is the feast” but today we sang “This is our gift of ovation to our God.” The meaning is the same: we’re praising God. The belief part is staying the same, because God is always the same. But God is also always creating something new, always calling us to new life, to abundant life.
Do you hear it too? The voice of the shepherd, the voice of the one you trust, calling your name, calling you into community, calling you with the gifts you have to share, calling you to abundant life. A new thing is happening—can you perceive it?