Imagine you are a parent visiting Disney World with your children. Most of you know the drill. It has become the American parent’s journey to Mecca, a required pilgrimage if a parent is to retain their “good parent” certificate. There you are, waiting in long lines for the popular rides, waiting in long lines for a table in a restaurant, and waiting in long lines for the restroom. And at all times you are surrounded by the omnipresent Disney music. For weeks you will be humming It’s a small world after all.
There must be one hundred children riding on the Merry-Go-Round when your children board one of the wooden horses. And all of them are screaming the same thing to their parents, “Daddy, look at me!” or “Mommy, come ride with me!” If I was there beside you in that bedlam, I might ask you, “How do you know which voice is the voice of your child? They all sound the same.” And wise parent that you are, you would say, “I know it sounds confusing when they all yell at once. But trust me, I know the sound of my child’s voice. I would recognize that voice anywhere.”
There must be a special frequency for intimate relationships. For it is true, parents and children recognize each other’s voice, even in the cacophony of the world’s competing noise. One father at the park utilized a special clucking noise he developed through the years to get his kid’s attention when they are in noisy places. Other parents simply call out to their children, calling them by name. But the result is the same. Parents and kids know each other’s voice.
But parents and children are not the only relationship that thrives on voice recognition. Shepherds also know their sheep individually, call them by name, and the sheep recognize their shepherds voice. To this day you can see Palestinian shepherds guiding their flocks through fields, or on roads. Sometimes there are multiple flocks and multiple shepherds at the same place, all mixed up together. And yet when the shepherds call their flocks, they separate, following the distinctive voice of their shepherd. It is the Disney World of shepherding, but it works. It’s all a matter of voice recognition. This is the background for the image Jesus uses in our gospel lesson today. He is our Good Shepherd, and he says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” What does this mean for us today?
Sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice because the shepherd is their only defense in a hostile world.
Just think about it. Sheep have no natural defense mechanisms. They have no claws, no sharp teeth. Sheep are not fast, nor even extremely bright. They do not organize into groups. They have a poor sense of direction, so they get lost easily. Therefore, up against a world filled with wolves and other animals with a taste for mutton, what chance do the sheep have? Well, none, if left to their own devices. But the sheep have a secret weapon that gives them the tactical advantage against the wolves—the sheep have a shepherd.
That must be the reason the sheep pay such close attention to the voice of their shepherd. Their safety and survival is completely dependent on their proximity to the shepherd, and to the ability and attentiveness of the shepherd to take care of his flock. In the case of the Christian Church and her Lord, we could not have a more attentive and powerful Shepherd. Are there wolves in our world—those who would take advantage of the people of faith, those who are long on aggressiveness and short on ethics? Of course. But the wolves are no match for our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. So, do not fear. And do not by tempted to join the wolves. Even if they sit on powerful boards at the company. Even if they seem to have the upper hand in the dangerous world of business and politics. Do not cringe in fear by the sharp teeth and snarling growl of the wolves. Trust the rod and staff of our Shepherd. Listen for his voice. Jesus will never leave us, nor lose us, nor lead us astray.
But sheep also listen to the voice of their shepherd in order to find their way in the world.
Earlier in this same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name. There is nothing quite so personal as our names. And nothing feels quite as good as when we hear our name called by someone who cares about us. It is our name that keeps us from feeling anonymous, or invisible, in a large crowd. Do you remember the TV sit-com Cheers? Who could forget Norm, the larger-than-life accountant who occupied a corner at the bar in every episode? Even though Norm felt like a loser in every other arena of his life, when he came into the Cheers Bar, everyone there called out his name in a unison welcome, “NORM!” And suddenly he felt like somebody. Who wouldn’t, in “a place, where everyone knows your name”? What if our parish, or small groups within the parish, was like that?
My good news of this day and every day of our faith life is that the Lord knows each of us by name – he calls us from the first moment of our existence to share his life and his unconditional love.
My brothers and sisters, what we want, what we really want, is to know that God knows about us, cares about us, and ultimately carries us safely across the shadow of death in his eternal arms. And more than this, we want to know that God actually knows us individually, personally, that He knows our name. Well, good news. According to Jesus, God does!