When I was living in my first apartment, I had a roommate, Karen.
We shared the onset of adult responsibilities, including the grocery bill. Whenever I did the grocery shopping, I could hear Karen’s voice when I reached for something on the shelf: “Don’t buy that! It’s too expensive!” Karen’s wasn’t the only voice I heard. I also heard my mother’s voice. She said: “Don’t buy that, it’s too fattening!” With those two voices guiding me, I would avoid the imported cheese section—taboo for both reasons—and generally come home with salad and chicken breasts for dinner.
We all have many voices speaking inside our heads. We hear the voices of parents, peers, teachers; positive voices that guide us. We also hear negative voices. It is a sad truth that some of them are also parents, peers and teachers. We hear voices from the larger community: political voices, the media; voices reach us 24/7/365 on 900 channels, on the internet, on our phones! It’s a wonder you can find any space to think. How do you choose which voice, or voices to really listen to? Whose voice can you trust?
Did you notice in the Gospel passage that the sheep listen to the Good Shepherd because they know his voice? They do not follow the thief and the bandit, because they do not know the voice of strangers. You may not like the idea of identifying yourself as a sheep, and you may not know why you would want to follow a shepherd. That’s the problem we have as twenty-first century post-modern, suburban dwellers in New England: shepherds are rare around here.
I don’t know of any shepherds in Hingham.
Is a shepherd an isolated pastoral agricultural worker with hygiene issues? What does a shepherd do? Why, for instance, would that rod and staff be comforting? Think of them as defensive weapons; a shepherd would use them to fight off a wolf. There is an account in the Hebrew Scriptures where a shepherd wrests the remains of a sheep from a lion—actually taking food from the mouth of the lion! A shepherd is a hero! The rod and staff are protection from predators, and the hook on the crook can slip in front of our feet as we start to wander off someplace we shouldn’t, astray.
The original people who heard Jesus say: “I am the Good Shepherd” would also have recognized in his words an echo of God as the shepherd of the people of Israel. The prophet Ezekiel describes God as a shepherd (in terms very similar to John’s Gospel, and to the beloved 23rd Psalm), and goes on to say that God will raise up a new David (who began as a shepherd and became the greatest king of Israel). The people listening to Jesus might have been thinking: is this the new David? Is this the one to lead us?
In the voice of the Good Shepherd, we hear God’s voice; the voice that spoke creation into being, the voice that spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden so they hid, the voice that spoke from Sinai in cloud and smoke so terrifying that the people begged Moses to speak to God for them. The voice that became so gentle that Elijah heard it as a “still small voice.” In the noisy world we live in, how can you hear that voice? How do you recognize and listen to that voice that you can trust?
The word vocation is from the Latin: vocare, to call.
The meaning of the word includes the idea that a person is called by God to a vocation. During my discernment process, I told many people the story of how I heard God calling me to the priesthood. As I was thinking about listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd, it occurred to me that I have never told my story to you, the people I serve.
On September 11, 2001, like all of you, I was watching television and weeping.
I grew up near New York City, and several members of my family work on Wall Street. I was sure I was watching them turn into the white ash that hung in the air. I later discovered that they all survived, but in the larger sense I was watching the deaths of members of my human family, thousands of them. I couldn’t turn off the television. Steve kept trying to make me do something else, but I couldn’t. At about 5:30, I heard a voice. It said, “Go to church.” I instantly turned to Steve and said, “I’m going to church. Do you want to come with me?” Normally that would have prompted a twenty minute conversation: should we go now or on Sunday? Should we call first? Should we eat before we go? But Steve was so relieved that he just grabbed the keys and we walked out the door.
We went to St. Matthew’s, where we had gone occasionally: Christmas and Easter, tough days when I needed a place to pray. To our surprise, a service started a few moments after we arrived. Afterwards, a man stood at the mic and said that the Men’s League was having their monthly dinner. They cancelled the speaker “due to events,” but dinner was on and everyone was welcome. Steve and I looked at each other, wondering if we should stay. We weren’t hungry, but we sure didn’t want to go home. We joined other people and talked about our anger, grief, and puzzlement. We cried. We found things to laugh about together even at that dark time. That is how I became the first woman to join St. Matthew’s through the Men’s League.
At first I thought “Go to church” meant: go right now. Then I thought it might mean, go to church regularly, which we did. I remember it as a gradual process, but by the middle of October I was a member of the choir—so it wasn’t that gradual. Then I became part of a woman’s group, and eventually served on the vestry. I thought “Go to church” meant: Go to the place where you will find meaning, and a community you didn’t even know you needed. Finally, I realized that I was being called to something else; I was called to become a priest. I listened to that voice that I grew to trust, and it led me into a whole new life. It led me into discernment, to ordination, and then it led me from St. Matthew’s here to St. John’s. I am blessed every day to be here.
Do you listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd?
I have collected stories over the years of people who have heard God speaking to them—often in the darkest moments of their lives. God’s loving voice speaks words of hope and affirmation. Have you heard it? Is God calling you to something in your life? If you are hearing something, check it with a few people you trust—the discernment process is important. God’s voice will lead you, guide you, give you courage and comfort. Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to you.
 Ezekiel 34:11-16