The Voice

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 25, 2021

John 10: 11-18

When I was a young lad, my brothers and sister and I took four toothpicks and broke one of them so that it was shorter than the rest. We set the toothpicks on the coffee table in the living room and then we waited. One of us would be summoned. The one who picked the short toothpick would be the chosen one. 

Our dad was upstairs trying to fix the toilet. We could hear him up there banging stuff around; swearing. We knew how these things worked. One of us would have to go up there and help him. Just to stand by and maybe hand him the proper tool. Perhaps to hold the flashlight just so. 

He would not designate any of us by name. Just, “Somebody,” as in “Somebody come up here.” 

It always turned out the same. The helper would somehow fall short of expectations. Then there would be yelling. The questions to which there was no proper answer. On some level you knew it wasn’t about you personally. 

Brother Joe being the oldest took the four toothpicks and arranged them in his hand so that they all seemed equal. The other three could choose – the toothpick of destiny. And so we did. I remember my relief at it not being me. This time at least. We sat and listened for the sound of his voice. 

We hear these stories about Jesus, the same stories over and over again. We can tell them the same way over and over again. They can be like hearing our favorite stories told just the way we like them. We are reminded of why they speak to us. Sometimes we hear something in a slightly different way. A line stands out. 

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” We’ve heard all about Jesus the shepherd and us the sheep and shepherds and sheep in general. A line that stands out in this story this time around is when he said, “They will listen to my voice.” Something about that line makes me wonder about the stories that go with it. 

In our time we know what people sound like. We’ve grown used to what people sound like. Think of how the sound of Winston Churchill’s voice channels the British spirit of the Second World War. Before visual media became dominant there was a brief period when sound conveyed meaning. People would sit and listen to the voices coming through the radio. The voices of politicians, like the songs we remember, evoke for good or ill our feelings for certain times in history. 

Jesus said, “They will listen to my voice,” but we don’t know what he sounded like. There are no recordings of his voice and even if there were, we would assume that he would be inclusive of the hearing impaired. Which would mean that it’s not so much the sound of his voice, but something about his speaking that resonates with us – what he has to say and the way he says it. 

They will listen to my voice…

We once listened to a concert where a musician named Lizzie Tocknel played the French Horn. One piece she played was “Lamento D’orfeo” by Volker David Kirchner. It involved playing into an open grand piano. The notes she blew on the French Horn resonated with those same notes in the piano. It was beautiful. 

There was a back and forth quality to this resonance that captured for me an idea about how we hear God’s “voice.” When we hear the sound of God’s “voice,” we hear it because it resonates within us. 

There is something in that image that points to the essential nature of faith and spirituality. Our tendency is to dress it up in words, in dogmas as a way of saying that if you belief certain facts about God, then you have “faith.” 

But I like the image of our soul being like a musical instrument – God speaks – we resonate. We can dress it up in religious terms and add all kinds of notes and variations to the theme, but at its core, the religious language we use is just another name for our resonating with God. It’s as if God is playing a symphony of love into the far reaches of the cosmos – composed with notes of love, mercy, grace and hope; and somewhere out there, our soul vibrates. 

In school one time we were studying one of those bible stories where the characters are having a conversation with God. I used to hear these explained away in different ways. One explanation was to say that that’s how God used to work back in the days of Abraham and Sarah. But God doesn’t need to do that anymore because we have the bible and that’s how God speaks now. Or that they were just made up stories like fairy tales. 

The teacher asked the students if any of us had ever heard God speak in an audible voice. He didn’t go into details concerning what he meant by audible and so forth; but just if any of us had ever heard God speak in an audible voice. After a few moments hesitation a hand went up here and there. Quite a few hands went up – including mine. 

There was a time when I thought it was my job as a minister to get people to do something. If you agree with that idea, then the list of things to get people to do is endless. It’s a list that tends to begin with – Getting people to come to church. And then once they are there getting them to do things. Maybe believe things; or act in certain ways; or do good deeds; or not do bad things. You can see how a list like that could go on and on. 

If the minister can’t get people to do things, then the people who think it’s the minister job to get people to do things will say, “The minister isn’t doing a very good job.” And because the list of things to do is endless, the minister could say, “This month I got people to do 100 things,” and people would say, “Yeah, but there’s at least 1000 things left undone. Why didn’t you do those?” It’s a recipe for frustration on all sides. 

Now, if anyone asks me, “What do you do?” I say, “Basically, I show up and remind people that God loves them.” What we do must grow out of who we are.  

When we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, we begin to know ourselves as God knows us. We gain the courage to remove the labels that other people put on us. These labels weigh heavy on our soul, as if putting piles of clutter onto the strings of piano. When our soul is weighed down with rubbish, we don’t resonate with God’s voice. 

And so we remove the junk – outcast, unclean, sinner, unworthy – in all the guises in which the junk is disguised. We free our hearts to hear God’s voice. 

Jesus would tell people, “Your faith has made you well.” All the time they were thinking, “Oh thank you Jesus. You saved me, you healed me, you did this great thing for me.” He said, “It was your faith. You believed. You had it in you the whole time; you just needed to see it.” He just helped people come alive to God and by that they were changed. They were born again, transformed. And it all came from within, from their own faith. 

And so we continue to listen for that one voice, the voice, the voice that makes our heart sing. As you think about what it means for you to listen for that voice, consider these words by the poet, priest and mystic, Anthony de Mello –

“I am giving you me, Lord. In the twinkle of my eye and the sadness of my sighing; in the laughter of my heart and the tears of my soul; in the rhythms of my feet and the silence and the silence of listening. 

I am giving you me in the promises I keep and the insults I pardon; in the good news that I share and the confidences I protect; in the remembering of gracious things and the forgetting of forgiven sins. 

I am giving you me in the young ones I kneel beside and the old ones I sit with; in the unborn ones I pray for and the dying ones I pray with; in the bright ones I wave to and the hurting ones I touch. 

I am giving you me in the meant song, in the quiet pause, in the special moment, in the nod of my life to your will and still, I am giving you me in the stuttered prayer and the lingering doubt and the dry days of the spirit and the contracted hopes. 

I am giving you me, Lord.”  
They will listen to my voice… Amen.

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