Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fourth Sunday Easter, Year A, 2017.
“The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.” Again we have the theme today in our Scripture that has been present and available to us since Easter Sunday—of hearing the voice of Jesus, and being led to truth; indeed even hearing Him only speak a word, and souls being healed. Undoubtedly this teaching was one of dozens spoken by Jesus which echoed around in the community of disciples during Jesus’s three years of ministry, and this teaching—this word—came back and was remembered by the community as they struggled to understand the resurrection and how Jesus, dead on a cross and laid in a cave, was alive and completely available to them, indeed available to them in a joyous, healing, and yet transformed way—Jesus, still with His wounds, His wounds glorifying Him and showing Him to be authentic.
If His sheep know Him by His voice, then being part of His sheepfold demands listening, and constantly so. What’s more, if His sheep are led by Him and led by His voice, then being part of His sheepfold demands surrender—surrender to the Good Shepherd. We cannot be guided along right pathways if we do not allow ourselves to be led. Listening and willing surrender—these are two characteristics of Jesus’s flock, two characteristics of being a disciple whose shepherd is Christ.
These are two characteristics of any authentic relationship of love—that we listen and surrender. Indeed, much of our suffering in life stems from our inability to listen and surrender.
For a variety of reasons, even perfectly understandable ones, we stop listening: to ourselves, to others, only hearing what we want to hear, indeed only hearing what will make it easier to continue not listening. This is particularly evident in our political world today, where the various sides and political factions do not truly listen to the other sides and factions, but only hear a distorted caricature of those other sides, so as to make it easier to continue not listening deeply to those who have a different point of view. Real, honest to God listening is a skill honed by grace and self-awareness of the kinds of distorted caricatures each of us happen to prefer to hear, and by conscious act of will, we choose to set aside and truly listen to a person with whom we disagree—to seek and serve the wounded Christ in each man and woman.
And for a variety of reasons, even perfectly understandable ones, we refuse to surrender: from our self-image, from our needs for security, approval, and power. We respond to threats to our needs for security, approval and power by lashing out—sometimes in anger, other times by subtle manipulations and veiled insults that we know draw blood—and in any case, we react and thereby close ourselves off from genuine loving relationship. We do not surrender to our Good Shepherd, He who leads us besides still waters. We do not surrender to the waters that want to be still, but constantly disrupt the stillness of the waters because we fear the tranquility. We fear the tranquility because deep down, we know that tranquil waters demand listening and surrender—that is, giving up control, indeed allowing our lives to be in someone else’s hands; actually in the hands of God, not as mere sentiment and cheerful idea, but as honest possibility of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, because God leads us to that.
Indeed, he led Saint Stephen to this very valley. He led Stephen to make himself available to be among the first group of Deacons ordained by the Apostles by prayer and laying on of hands. And he led Stephen to serve tables, to serve the poor and needy, to pray with those and for those who did not know how to pray for themselves. And God led Stephen to proclaim the truth—a glorious profession of the faith in the face of immediate threat to his life.
Stephen listened to God, not his own desires for self-preservation in a life comfortable and conventional. Stephen surrendered to the Good Shepherd, not to the Enemy who would have had Stephen stand down at his trial, and say the words that appeased those in power. Stephen was so comforted by the voice of his shepherd, indeed our shepherd as well, that while those around him were enraged by the truth, Stephen knew by his faith that by listening and surrendering, Jesus would be even more present to him in his time of need. He was given a vision of Heaven, and he was given the grace to pray as he was being murdered. “Lord Jesus,” he said, “receive my spirit.” May we all at the hour of our death have the same presence of mind to utter these words.
And then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Forgive them, in others words, because they know not what they do. Jesus comes rushing to Stephen and fills him with the same words that He himself uttered to His Father on the cross. And so again: when through actions of our will, we choose to listen and surrender to God, our souls will be healed, because as He did to the disciples, He will do for us: He will only speak a word, and we will know Him by His voice. Amen.