At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
"How long will you keep us in suspense?" It's a question that we find ourselves asking today, not only because we want to know how our favorite book, movie, or TV show will end, but because we want to know what is coming around the corner in our lives as well. It might be disappointing for some of you to hear, but I used to have a nasty habit of reading the last chapter of a book before starting from the very beginning. I liked to know what happened and surprisingly enough, I enjoy being able to see how the developing plot points lead up to the end. I'm not saying it's a great way to read a book, but it's something I used to enjoy.
Can you imagine reading a book and not knowing how it ended. So you write to the author, and they tell you, "Well, didn't you read it? You're supposed to know what happens by the time you get halfway through the book!" Some things might have gotten in the way of knowing what happened, and by the end, we might be caught off guard if we discover we are following the wrong voice. So what is the unexpected unending? What is it that we are supposed to know? What are we supposed to walk away with? What's going to happen? The suspense seems too much to bear.
Perhaps that's why I jumped ahead and read the last chapter before starting at the beginning… It was one of those rare moments where we have control over something, and for me, it might have felt like I had control over whether or not I invest time into something depending on how convincing the ending was. But life isn't like, unfortunately. We don't know how things are going to end and as much as we try to predict and plan, more often than not, we find that we are wrong with our many guesses and assumptions. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what happens next, but the problem we run into is that sometimes the answer has been in front of us all along and we just haven't been paying attention.
I can imagine Jesus standing among the group of people who had gathered and said, "Come on guys… How many times do I have to say it? I've already told you, but you're just not listening to what I'm saying." The shepherd in Jesus' answer calls out the sheep who know the shepherds name. I think it would be fair to say that we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but even though we know the voice of Christ, we don't always hear and respond to the call.
There's a little bit of uncertainty in every one of us. There is a little bit of anxiety within each of us as we struggle with hearing not only the call of Jesus but the call that we receive from each other as well who possess a spark of the divine creator. If we listen closely enough, or maybe more accurately listen more attentively, we would be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd over the chaotic orchestra of sounds that are also vying for our attention. Which can seem disappointing when we think we aren't successful in our discernment, but it's a part of our growth as people who are led by God's Spirit.
There was a story I remember hearing about a person who lived with someone who had three overbearing and misbehaved dogs. Just picture the worst behaved dog you can… They tore up future, barked at the most inappropriate hours of the day, and would only be welcoming to their owner. One day this individual had enough and devised a plan to get "revenge." You see, the owner had a very recognizable and easy to impersonate voice. And every day, the owner would greet the dogs by saying, "Hey, where is everyone?"
So the owners spent some time practicing, and finally one day they felt as though they had a pretty good imitation voice. So the one day at the same time the owner usually came home, the roommate unlocked the door and said, "Hey, where is everyone?" All of a sudden, the three dogs came running with their tails wagging happily. But all of a sudden then stopped in their tracks, and they looked at the roommate with confused looks on their faces.
This went in for a few more weeks, the same old routine, but one day something changed, something was different. It was the same time of day when the roommates opened the door and let out the imitated greeting, but there was silence. The roommate explored the house and found the three dogs sitting in the living room sleeping. They had finally picked up in the difference between the fake voice and the voice of their owner.
There are a lot of voices out there that try to trick and confuse us and lead us astray. Some voices tell us we will never be good enough. Some voices tell us no matter how hard we try; we will end up failing. Some voices tell us to give us, throw in the towel, and go home. But through the flurry of all these voices, there is still one that rings out always calling us back, and that that is the voice of the Good Shepherd. And for every voice that tells us that we will never be good enough, the Good Shepherd says, "You are beautiful the way you are." For every voice that tells us we will fail, the Good Shepherd says, "Don't worry, I'll be with you when you try again." And for every voice that tells us to give us and go home, the voice of the Good Shepherd pierces through and says, "Fear not, I'm with you through thick and thin."
I don't know many people like the Good Shepherd that Jesus describes in the reading this morning. There are some people in my life who I know I can always rely on and turn to when I need help with something, they know me, and I know them. What is challenging about the reading this morning is that Jesus paints a picture of a much broader family or "flock" to whom we are called to belong and place our faith. That takes a lot of courage to invest that much into someone who you have never met before. I don't expect you leave here this morning and find a stranger to love the same way God loved us, I'd give you a lot of credit, but I would understand if that is not your first instinct. That kind of relationships take time, and we don't all have the experience of relating to people so openly.
Today is Mother's Day, which is something most of you probably already knew. I find that Mother's Day is one of the holidays, much like Father's Day, that evokes many different emotions. There are those who never have been "mothers" in the traditional sense, there are those who have lost have their children or find that they worry about them, there are those who have lost their mother or those who were mother-like figures, and then there are those who take this day to cherish those whom they call "mom," whether it be their biological mother, adopted mother, or those unique individuals who have helped lived into that role. Today on this day, all these things are held in healthy tension as we celebrate those who are essential in our lives and grieve for the things that we need to grieve for in our lives
We don't often think of God as being a mother, but we certainly can call upon such images that come to us from individuals such as the Prophet Isaiah who wrote, "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." (Isaiah 66:13) As a mother, a those who have been female role models, have comforted been with us through our life's journey we might have found that they have been there to comfort us, to walk with us, and call us by name when others might not have been there for us. It's a rocky journey but one that reminds us that the unexpected ending to the story comes at a price that is not always apparent, not always acknowledged by our hearts.
The unexpected ending to the story might seem disheartening at first glance. We might think that if we don't hear the Good Shepherd's voice, then there is something wrong with us, but in reality, I don't think that's the case. It's not one chance and one chance only kind of a thing, but the Good Shepherd is one who continually calls out the sheep by name and goes to looks for them when they get lost. The Good Shepherd, who is also like a protective mother who calls us by name, loves the flock so much that they will make sure that no one or no force takes the sheep away.
"No one will snatch them from my hand," says the Lord God. In the end, maybe the unexpected ending shouldn't be that surprising to us. And if we do find it surprising perhaps, it's because the love of the Good Shepherd is still so radical that our minds can't wrap itself around such a sacrifice. The expected ending, the ending that we knew from the beginning is that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sake of others, the Good Shepherd loves us in such a way where we are called to model that love to others. Whether it is our biological mother, adopted mother, or mother figure, perhaps we can channel a bit of their energy into being present for those who require such divine love, and grace, and compassion.
Let's not afraid to be real this Mother's Day. Let's not be scared to be vulnerable to one another and God's Spirit. The Good Shepherd is calling out to us by name, looking for us among the thistles and the thorns that might have seemed more alluring to the sheep who wandered off. Listen attentively… if you lean in hard enough into the everlasting promises of God, you will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd breaking through the voices that try and keep us down. And hopefully what we thought was an unexpected ending turns out to be a powerful reminder that you are a beloved child of God, who cares for us like a mother and is willing to give all so that we may find rest in true peace and love. Amen.