Acts 9:36–43; Revelation 7:9–7; John 10:22–30

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; Amen.

Christ as the Good Shepherd is one of the most familiar and comforting images in all of Christian art. The little lamb tenderly carried on Jesus’ shoulders speaks to our most profound human need; to be loved, to be safe, to be known. “I call you each by name and you know my voice.” But what does it mean for Jesus to call himself Shepherd? And what does that calling mean for us?

In calling himself Shepherd, Jesus draws on the prophet Ezekiel’s image of God as the model Shepherd. Now Ezekiel was writing from the great trauma of Israel: when the people were invaded and deported from their homeland to Babylon. Their temple—their spiritual home in Jerusalem—was destroyed.

In a way, it’s a bit like what we witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, when thousands were sent away from their homes, which were flooded and destroyed. In the wake of Israel’s trauma, Ezekiel, the prophet, speaking on behalf of God says that God, as Shepherd, will come to rescue the people, lead them home and inaugurate a new age, the reign of God.

And that is precisely what Jesus claimed for himself. For both Ezekiel and for Jesus, the reign of God is the work of God. And that work is to care for our most vital and intimate needs, to provide food, shelter, clothing—to rid our pain from all our poverties. It is God’s dream of peace and wholeness for all of creation. For Jesus, this work is to model self-giving love even unto death and as the Risen Christ, to intimately reach into our greatest fears—the most vulnerable parts of ourselves—and dry every tear, to trade in the horrors of death for the Easter hope of new life. This is what the name Shepherd means for those who follow Jesus.

This kind of intimacy between shepherd and sheep reminds me of a documentary film, called Dancemaker, which celebrates the life and work of the internationally renowned modern dance choreographer, Paul Taylor.

Taylor began his career with modern dance legend, Martha Graham, and is known as much for his choreography as his company. His will and work are one, and as embodied in his company, capture an athleticism and exuberance for life that is quintessentially American in spirit. In this film, he and his company have been invited to India for a command performance where they will premiere a new work.

In preparation for this engagement, Taylor calls his dancers in to their New York rehearsal studio. He gathers them around him. First, they sit and listen to the music, studying all of its nuances.

Only when they have become immersed in the music does Taylor get up and spontaneously begin to create movement. And the dancers, in turn, rise and begin to follow his actions, interpreting them through their own temperament and physicality. It is a collaborative dance to make a dance that begins from listening and following their music.

The rehearsal process is long and arduous, marked by blood, sweat and tears. Injuries, missed vacations, and careful attention to diet are part and parcel of the life. But the dancers understand this paradoxical truth: without discipline there can be no freedom to dance. Their dedication symbolizes their love, and their love is reflected in their discipline. That kind of ability to offer oneself is a powerful thing—to trust something so implicitly that one can leave home, change lifestyle and priorities. The dancers are like the disciples in that way: they left their lives for the discipline of their great love. After all, the root word for discipline is disciple.

Finally, they are off to India and the big night arrives. The theatre is abuzz. The house lights dim to black. And the curtain goes up. The music begins to waft through the sound system filling the theater and dancers begin to dance.

The driving rhythm of the music intensifies and begins pulsating deep within their bodies. Dancers and music are one. And suddenly, the music cuts out. The camera quickly cuts: backstage. The stage manager is frantic. She is pushing every button on her console, trying to figure out why there’s no sound. And why the tape player is not running. It’s as if her safety net has been snatched away as she teeters between total panic and brittle self control. She screams at the technicians, “Re-patch the electrics; give me some sound!”

The camera quickly cuts: Onstage. Still no sound…but the dancers are still dancing! And there is not a trace of fear on their faces, not a hint of confusion, only a heightened sense of listening throughout their whole bodies, listening for their music. And even though it is not there, they can still dance because they know their music so intimately—it lives inside them. Moreover, they can dance not only individually but as one communal body. It is like knowing that God is as close as your breath—as close as your neighbor.

Jump cut: Back to the stage manager who is desperately trying to maintain some sense of control. She finally gets the thumbs up from the technicians, but just as she is about to press the button, she realizes she will never be able to find the right place in the music. The dancers have been dancing all this time and if she turns on the sound there will be a huge collision on stage of dancers and music. She stops in absolute and complete resignation.

And that’s when it happens! Only when she gives up trying to maintain a sense of control does she realize that the answer to her problem has been with her all along. If she had trusted, listened to that inner voice and not tried so hard to be the source of her own protection, she would have remembered that there has been a back-up tape player running the entire time powered by batteries. And though it wasn’t connected to the sound system, she is willing to hope for the best.

She has the technician do the electrical patch. The camera cuts back onstage to the dancers. The music comes on…and the dancers have not missed a beat. They are in perfect step. The crowd goes wild!

I think that is how we all want to know the voice of our Shepherd. Like those dancers know their music. So that no matter what is happening around us—nothing can ultimately throw us off balance. So how do we do that? How do we have that paradoxical equilibrium where we maintain balance and yet find the freedom of the dancers?

We must dare to accept Christ’s invitation to live in the freedom of God’s love. Our tendency is to think that by stage managing our lives we can be the source of our protection, but with Christ as our Shepherd, we will want for nothing—nothing will keep Jesus from supplying those intimacies which make us whole. Life will present conflict, but we will lie down in green pastures, be led beside still waters and be refreshed by the Shepherd who shows us the walkway to God’s eternal shelter.

To accept this radical invitation to let go and live into such freedom we must in Christ’s words, know his voice and follow him. But how do we recognize a voice even when it sometimes seems silent? The answer is simple: in the Bible, knowledge of God is love of God. To know Jesus is this: to love him. And we all know that love is a verb. Love is an action, an act of heart, mind, soul and will. And all it takes is one small but profound word, “yes.”

When we accept that invitation, we join in the community Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. Jesus and God are one. Their will and their work are the same—because they strive to offer abundant life and love—to offer food, water, and shelter—pastures, lakes, and right pathways.

When our work becomes inseparable from God’s work, we know we’ve heard God’s voice. When we tutor a young student after school or take communion to someone dying in the hospital we know we are following Jesus. When we agree to rebuild houses and lives in the Gulf Coast, we’ve made it our call to help inaugurate the reign of God. By loving Jesus and following Jesus we participate in what Diana Butler Bass—in referring to C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra—has called, “the great dance wherein mercy and justice clasp hands, and the universe moves in rhythm to God’s intention for creation.” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, p. 173)

We have a choice. We can get stuck in the lament of Jesus’ seeming absence—of all that is wrong and broken in this world. But I don’t recommend that because without his voice much of life can feel like we are dancing without music.

Or, by saying “yes” to his love, we can be transformed from Sheep into Shepherds. To love as we have been loved. Upheld by his Spirit, we can pitch our tents in the world of paradox and be sent on our way so that others may believe and have fullness of life. And in so doing, we know like those dancers who so intimately knew their music, that when our music returns, and our Shepherd calls, we too will be in perfect step, in a dance of unimaginable rejoicing.