I recently had an experience of trying to pray, and not being able to. I wonder if you have ever encountered this phenomenon.
Some years ago, when I still lived with my parents, one of my good friends, whom I had not seen for awhile showed up at our house. I was reading a book. I did not overhear who was at the door, and my friend walked into the living room with a big grin and just stood there smiling at me. I was so amazed that I could not speak. In fact, I couldn't even move. We were both absolutely frozen for what seemed like an eternity and finally my parents came in the room and started talking and slowly I was able to put words together. But at first, the words just couldn't come up.
Now, this is nothing to brag about. I don't like being literally speechless. And there is a difference between being shocked by a long lost friend and not feeling able to pray, but the feeling is so odd because on one hand there is no communication at all, and on the other hand there are so many things to be expressed that it's as if every thought bottlenecks and can't get out.
But this feeling of being silenced was more like the feeling of the lights going down and the curtain coming up, but then nothing happening. And I stayed with that feeling, because I've learned that if you want to be a devout Christian, sometimes you have to be willing to go to places you don't understand.
The Gospel lesson today is about Jesus being confronted by some of the people in the temple. John just says "Jews," but that's not all that helpful. Everyone was Jewish. We are to understand that "the Jews" in this context would be devout people in authority, probably Pharisees and scribes. And they ask Jesus, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
If you read their question in the Greek, it can have two meanings. "How long will you keep us in suspense" can mean how long will you not tell us, but it can also mean, "how long will you annoy us?" That second interpretation is more appealing to me. John seems to like these sorts of confrontations. "How long will you annoy us, Jesus? How long will you toy with us?"
And Jesus responds, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me." He's not being as direct with them as they would like, but we know that he is saying, "Yes, I am he." The problem rests with their expectations. Jesus goes on to say, "You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."
Now, it would be easy for us to sort of shake our heads at the people Jesus is speaking to. We are accustomed to Jesus' self-understanding—so much so that we don't really even bat an eye when he makes that transition from Messiah language to shepherd language. But for people looking for a Messiah this is a fairly dramatic transition.
The expectation of "Messiah" was this charismatic political leader who would re-establish the throne of David. He would kick out the Roman occupation by some kind of revolt, and usher in a triumphant theocracy for Israel. Asking Jesus if he is the Messiah is not like asking if he's running for president. It's more like asking if he's going to be… well… It's kind of hard to describe it. A kind of terrorist, but a benevolent one. I'm not sure I can even wrap my own mind around it, because the expectations of the Messiah were so broad in spectrum, both politically and religiously. No one could live up to the messianic expectations of everyone.
But what is fascinating is how Jesus tries to navigate between their expectations and his own self-understanding. He is saying to them, indirectly, Yes, I am the Messiah, but your expectations are at the same time too high and too low. Your expectations are too high, because you are expecting some flashy politician. At the same time, they're too low, because God is not interested in temporary worldly politics, he's interested in the cosmic spiritual politics of all people being cared for. And he signals that change beautifully by changing the language to that of sheep and shepherd.
Again, you and I might not even notice it, but the question is "messiah?" and Jesus responds, "shepherd." It's beautiful, because it's so earthy.
Now, the logic of Jesus' words can come across a little poorly. You do not understand because you are not my sheep. It comes across as circular logic. But Jesus is not freezing them out. He is saying, You don't understand because you don't really want to understand.
You have to actually follow me to realize I'm the shepherd. You can't know for sure until you commit. And that is where the rubber really meets the road. It is one thing to study the New Testament, or to worship Jesus. But it is quite another thing to follow him.
Sometimes following can seem so easy. I am sure you have known times in your life when it seemed as if everything was going better than you could have ever planned it. Life spread itself out in "broad, sunlit uplands." Most of the time we just kind of muddle through, but occasionally … There have been times when I truly felt as if I was being led by Christ, like a sheep following a shepherd. Of course, there have been many more times when I have listened for the shepherd's voice and heard nothing.
Devout people care about that silence. Earnestly devout people have a very strong desire to please God. They like to live with a modest but constant habit of prayer. So when it gets quiet, or when it feels hard to pray, there is pain in that silence—and a desire to know if they have done anything to cause it. The silence can produce anxiety.
You know, anxiety is negative faith. If you type the word "faith" into the calculator and hit the "negative" button, it will compute as anxiety. Anxiety is aggressive pessimism. If this happens and that happens, then where will we be? And if you're not good at making up your own fantasies about what might go wrong, you can just flip on the news and they'll do it for you!
Anxiety is seductive because it can seem like we're getting control. If we can imagine what might come down the pike, and map out what our likely reactions will be, then we'll be ahead of the game. Sometimes that can work.
About a year or so ago, I was invited to go to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital for a seminar for local clergy on disaster preparedness. The letter came in the mail and they promised to give me lunch, so that sealed the deal!
I sat with the other clergy of Woodstock and Shenandoah County and drank coffee and was given papers and listened to briefings about what ifs. And after being meticulously led though the flow charts, and chain of command, and what the protocols would be, the man—I don't remember his name, he was from Winchester—he said, "But you know, even though we've got all this written down, no one looks at this book in an actual crisis. We just do the best we can." So, in other words, they have plenty of faith in their ability to manage a situation as it unfolds, but the anxiety of the wait has to make some flow charts!
People like to worry. There is something about it. Even though it can cripple our relationships, our churches, and even our very selves. Sometimes faithful people, will nurse their anxiety about God, rather than trust God with those feelings, and be honest and say, "God, I'm worried about this. I trust you, but I worry. I'm trying to hear from you. I really am." I think God appreciates those prayers. They are honest prayers. And I have heard tell that God likes honesty.
St. John of the Cross spoke of the "dark night of the soul"—a period of time in every devout Christian's life, when God can seem entirely absent. It becomes impossible to hear from God. These are times when it seems as if we have been pushed out of the garden of Eden. We wander in barren lands.
W. H. Auden wrote a poem that has been set to music, and you will find it in our Hymnal. If you would like to see it, look at Hymn 463, or 464.
"He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety: you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy."
I believe Auden is saying is that the Land of Unlikeness, the Kingdom of Anxiety, the World of the Flesh…this is where we live. Auden says, Seek Christ in this crazy world. Accept that there are going to be ups and downs and all arounds, but that God is still present with us in the anxiousness.
There is so much in our world that is restless and fleshly and unlike what we would prefer, but as people of God, our task has always been to follow the one who is Way, Truth, and Life.
I cannot give you an easy recipe for hearing the voice of the shepherd. I wish I could. I, too, am often unable to hear. And I, too, am struck dumb sometimes in this Land of Unlikeness.
What I offer is what the Church has offered for all these many centuries—a simple invitation to trust him. Love him. Seek him. Follow him. Listen for his voice, be patient. And at your commitment to "faith anyway," which Auden refers to as a marriage (Beautiful!), all these occasions of anxiety will dance for joy, because faith will cast out fear.
"My sheep hear my voice," says Jesus, "I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842