“Called by Name” Colchester Federated Church, April 30, 2023, (John 10:1-10) Fourth Sunday of Easter

In today’s Gospel story from the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus is talking about sheep and their shepherd.  Jesus refers to himself as the gate of the sheep and goes on to refer to himself as the good shepherd.  Jesus said that thieves and outlaws climb over the wall to enter the sheep pen.  But the shepherd enters through the gate because he is the shepherd of the sheep.  Jesus says, “The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.”[1]  The sheep listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow the shepherd where he leads because they know his voice.

Being called by name is powerful.  Jesus knew that and says as much in chapter 10 when he contemplates sheep listening to the voice of the shepherd and following along.  We can see this teaching powerfully displayed in John’s story of Easter Sunday when Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener until the moment that Jesus says, “Mary.”[2]  Jesus called Mary Magdalene by name.  She recognized Jesus not because of his physical appearance (which seemed to inevitably change after his crucifixion and resurrection based on many of these stories we are exploring in Eastertide).  Mary recognized that the man speaking to her was in fact Jesus, her beloved teacher and friend, because of hearing his voice call her by name.

Here’s a few more examples of this phenomenon.  Our closing hymn this morning will be “The Summons” written by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland.  The Iona Community is “an international, ecumenical Christian movement working for justice and peace, the rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”[3]  We sometimes say prayers or sing songs from Iona at CFC because I happen to love their worship resources and John Bell once came to Andover Newton when I was in Seminary.  Anyway, “The Summons” has the lovely lines about being called by name.  “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?”  “Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?”[4]  The hymn echoes the idea Jesus shares today about the shepherd calling his own sheep by name and leading them out.  John Bell’s lyrics pose these questions to you and to me to consider for ourselves.

Here’s another example of being called by name.  As some of you know, my husband Neill and I have a rescue dog named Hildy.  Friends of ours needed to rehome Hildy, and we hoped that we could help everyone out by welcoming Hildy into our family.  So, this middle-aged, 74-pound, German Shepherd mix who loves people (but hates every animal) came to live with us at the parsonage.  Hildy especially loves Neill.  For Hildy, the sun, moon, and stars revolve around Neill.  (Obviously I understand). 

One day Rich Hosford came over as the Hosford boys take care of the parsonage lawn.  And as the garage door was opening, and Rich and Neill were chatting, Hildy made a break for it and ran out of the house.  I was walking into the kitchen and observed the scene for a second before registering what was happening.  The garage door opening.  The black streak of Hildy.  Rich’s shocked face.  And Neill channeling his high school football days of the lineman charging after the quarterback. 

Our church’s parsonage is right here on church property on Main Street, and I am internally freaking out because of fearing our dog getting hit by a car.  Meanwhile Neill managed to corral Hildy away from the street and into the cemetery.  The scene changed to Neill still running after Hildy (in his flip flops no less) and Hildy enjoying the chase and frolicking among the graves. 

As calmly as I could manage, I stayed near the house and called Hildy’s name.  Hildy stopped.  Looked up.  Saw me.  And ran right to me, including army crawling underneath the cemetery fence to get to me.  Neill and Rich can attest to how Hildy reacted when she heard me call her name.  Here’s the thing, Neill is still Hildy’s favorite person.  But for some reason, she listens better to me.  Perhaps she knows the voice of this shepherd.

The point is that when Jesus talks about the sheep knowing the voice of the shepherd, that is a powerful image.  It is striking considering all of the voices we hear day in and day out.  From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night, there are voices we hear all around us.  Even if we may live alone, there are still voices all around us, voices calling out to us.

Think about the forms of entertainment at our fingertips—from traditional cable, TV shows, and movies to streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV, and Disney Plus.  The list goes on and on for ways we can be entertained, helped along by smartphones that have almost become attached to our bodies (and I am as guilty of this as the next person).  Or think about where we get our news—from traditional print newspapers or watching the local or national news to 24-hour news channels with the constant “breaking news” shared.  Or we may have email subscriptions to magazines and newspapers that arrive in our inboxes or we get our news from social media or good old-fashioned small-town gossip. 

Think about how pervasive advertising is—not just when watching something, but when driving down the highway or around town and seeing billboards, lawn signs, and business signs.  We might want to relax and listen to music on the radio, only to have station after station playing commercials.  Or we get hungry and get something to eat out of the pantry.  Those food items are full of labels that share the nutritional value (but also are designed with us as consumers of products in mind).  From the colors to the labels to the catch phrases and characters that may be on the food we are just trying to eat to satisfy our bodily hunger.  Think of Tony the Tiger or Count Chocula!  Advertising is pervasive.  

Here’s the point, all day long we hear messages, we listen to voices, whether we are conscious of the messaging or not.  The world can be a noisy place with all of these voices all around us.  Let alone our daily interactions with the people with whom we may share our home or our lives—our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and church family.

Sometimes we could ask ourselves if all of the noise prevents us from hearing the voice of Jesus calling us by name.  Our challenge may just be to simplify somehow.  Or at least to be more conscious of the voices who bring value and good messages to our lives that help us on our journeys. 

There was a wonderful illustration in a Contemplative Outreach booklet on Simplicity I happened upon, and it’s the final image about being called by name to share this morning.  An author related that he grew up on a farm in Indiana and there were several large mulberry trees on their family’s property that were almost like part of the house or even members of their own family.  One day in his childhood, he witnessed these beloved trees enduring a three-hour attack by a crew with chain saws and hydraulic ladders.  The crew sawed, trimmed, and pruned those mulberry trees and left them seemingly in shambles.  The trees were reduced “to a skeleton of a few stark, naked limbs hanging from lonely trunks surrounded by mounds of sawdust and leaves.”[5]  He worried that the trees would never recover from this action.  Though to his amazement, the following spring, the trees grew larger and fuller than they had ever grown before.  Those trees burst forth with an extravagant display of flowers, leaves, and mulberries.  The pruning process did not kill the trees, but instead helped them to blossom all the more beautifully.

It may help to think about pruning when it comes to our own lives.  To contemplate the voices that we hear all around us and what they have to say.  To somehow be conscious of the sounds of the voices we could lower in order to hear Jesus calling us by name.  To challenge ourselves to truly listen for the voice of our good shepherd so that we can follow where he would lead.  For Jesus came that we could have life—so that we could live life to the fullest.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 10:3-4, CEB.
[2] John 20:16.
[3] “About the Community”, The Iona Community, https://iona.org.uk/
[4] “The Summons”, words by John L. Bell, music: Scottish melody; arranged by John L. Bell.
[5] “Pruning” in The Contemplative Life Program 40 Day Practice: Simplicity, Shared from John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey, The Lessons of St. Francis.

Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash