Today's gospel reading is taken from the 10th chapter of John where, in a lengthy discourse, Jesus speaks of himself through the image of the Good Shepherd. The image is multi-faceted, focusing in part on Jesus' sacrificial death - the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Additionally, the shepherd image is used to describe the close, personal relationship that exists between Jesus and his sheep, his followers. And this relationship is the focus of today's reading. Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me and I give them eternal life." A few verses before this passage, Jesus emphasizes that not only does he know his own sheep, but that he calls them by name. The relationship is truly personal, intimate.
To me, there's something haunting about this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Part of what makes this image resonate for me is that it evokes that strong, visceral connection that can exist between the non-human and human creatures, a close interspecies relationship that takes place on the fringe of language. The sheep know the voice, the call of the shepherd, and they follow him. There's a reference to 1st century Palestinian herding practice buried here. It was usual for several flocks of sheep to be kept in one sheepfold. Each shepherd had a distinctive call to which only his flock would respond when he came to lead them out to pasture. Moreover, in ancient Palestine, as is still the case, and probably has been forever, people gave personal names to animals that they were especially attached to. So among the sheep there was Long-Ears, Sweet-Pea, and Honey-Lamb. Although sheep can't talk (at least not as we understand language), they can know the voice and the call of the shepherd, can know their names, and they respond.
What haunts me most about this shepherd-sheep imagery is the stark contrast between the simple, direct, barely verbal world of sheep and shepherd and the complex hyper-verbal world that we live in. We're constantly inundated with a cacophony of strident voices out to us, calling our name, summoning us to this or that. There are the robo-calls on a first name basis with us, reminding us to show up for medical appointments that we're already too much aware of. There are the personalized calls to sign petitions, the competing news feeds, the incessant buzz of social media. And then there are those personalized emails, for example, Amazon, that say, "Larry, we think you might like these books or this music." Even my dog, Willy gets personalized emails reminding him that it's time for his annual vaccinations. The sad irony of our world is that the more personalized the robo-calls, the texts, the emails become, the less we feel personally named, called, or known. In this cacophony of voices, after a while, it seems that no voice really calls to us. There's no shepherd's call. Everybody knows our name, but seldom does anyone call us by name in any true sense, in any sense that would suggest that we are known and cared about.
So in the din of voices vying for our attention, how can we hear the one voice that matters - the voice of the Good Shepherd who knows us and calls us by name? What does it even mean to hear the shepherd's call? I don't know the answer. It's so much easier to ask these questions than to answer them. But maybe there are clues, directions for thought. And I think one such clue about hearing the shepherd's voice is offered in the resurrection stories in John's gospel.
In these resurrection stories Jesus isn't a constant presence. He appears suddenly, addresses a situation, and then vanishes. Consistently, Jesus' appearances and words are occasioned by a keen sense of need experienced by one or more of his followers. The risen Jesus appears to, and consoles, Mary Magdalene in her sorrow simply by calling her name. He speaks "Peace" to the disciples locked away in their fear, and to Thomas in his doubt. Finally to Peter and his fishing companions, the risen Jesus issues a simple invitation to breakfast and not incidentally, to a new life.
Thinking about these stories in relation to the question about how we discern the shepherd's call amid the clamor of so many voices, we might consider the idea that the all may sometimes be heard in the places in our lives where it seems to be most silent and where none of the uproar around us has anything more to say to us. It may be that where we are bereft of the shepherd's call is where we are most likely to hear the voice calling our name. That is to say, it is in our sorrows, our fears, our doubts, our emptiness, hunger, and sense of futility that we should listen for the call of the Good Shepherd who alone knows our true name, and in calling us by name summons us to life. Perhaps it is in these silent, desolate, empty places in our lives where nothing any longer calls us, that we have the space to hear the shepherd's call.