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Opening the Gates: Listening to the call of the Shepherd

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“What’s your calling?”  An interesting question, one that you’re unlikely to hear outside of church circles.  Perhaps you might hear the term “vocation” instead, most often applied to service oriented professions, such as teaching or healing.  Both words come from the same Latin root verb “vocare”, which literally means “to call”; the word it is literally related to “voice”, to the personal way that we each express our lives, and to our ability to hear voices. 

Parker Palmer, renowned teacher of teaching, author and inspirational speaker, wrote a seminal book on this subject called “Let Your Life Speak”.  In it, Palmer discusses “listening for the voice of vocation” and says this: “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”  This book became important to me early in my seminary education, because it spoke to my “calling”.

The question of “calling” – as I discussed this week in my newsletter reflection – is a tricky one.  It’s far from a simple one to answer, and as a priest, you end up having to do that all the time.  “How were you ‘called’?”, people often ask.  As an Episcopalian, its especially tricky – you don’t want to sound too weird or “woo woo” about it, like invoking images of angels and lights and disembodied voices; and you don’t want to sound too intellectual or “prideful” either.

The very question reflects a bit of hubris, to me, as though Jesus doesn’t call just anyone, or everyone.  It hung me up for a while in following my own call.  Since I was an actor and a singer and a teacher, I thought that I would have to choose to give up all of that to become “ordained”; that God would require me to change who I was for me to be included in this special group of those who are “called”.  What nonsense!  As though God would waste that experience rather than share it; as though God would call us as anything less than who we are!

“I am the Gate”, Jesus says today, in one of many “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel.  I Am; Jesus speaks about his own identity, his own “calling”, of a sort, the one established by the prophets before him.  It’s helpful to realize that today’s Gospel reading follows directly on Jesus’ healing of the man born blind, and that he is addressing the Pharisees, who are spiritually closed to seeing and hearing Jesus’ call.  Jesus is calling them “thieves and bandits”, the opposite of the “good shepherd”, as described in Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them”.  That is not the kind of leadership that God requires of us. 

Today’s passage is all about opening:  opening our eyes, and ears, and hearts and our doors.  Jesus opens the gate to us all:  all of us sheeps!  He wants us all to have lives that are full and abundant and healthy and true.  He IS and wants us to BE.  To be ourselves, and to offer all that we are to the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace; to offer our skills our experiences and our resources for “the goodwill of all the people”.

For that is how we answer Christ’s call.  The Book of Acts is very clear about how those first disciples lived:  they gave what they had, in common, to help others.  For the health and wellbeing not just of themselves but of everyone.  Wow.  That’s a tall order!  And an intriguing invitation, a summons, a call to vocation!

It does not ask us, however, to deny ourselves; merely to know ourselves and to be generous with our gifts.  Palmer also talks about the importance of “self-care” in his book, saying, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” Jesus calls to each of us by name, as we are, all that we are.  He knows our true selves, not ego, not a self that is falsely inflated, or diminished, but the self that Palmer says, “(is) planted in us by the God who made us in God’s own image– the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.”

Hearing Jesus’ call to enter his gate requires listening to the voice of that “true self”, and of living whole, living true lives, that are both generous and glad.  It also means accepting others in the same way, as whole, true sheep of God, just as God created them, including their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their pre-existing conditions, their fears and hopes and talents and dreams.  All of it!  If Jesus opens the gate to all the sheep, who are we to try and keep anyone out?

So, let’s return to the first question I asked us today: “What’s your calling?”  When you are quiet, listening deeply, not only to the voice of Christ, but to the voice of your life, speaking, what does God call you to be and do?  For if you follow that voice, that vocation, God will make a way.  Jesus makes a “way out of no way”, Jesus is the gate! Opening for you, for me, for everyone.

And what is our calling?  Together, as a parish, as a Church?  To which green pastures does God call St. James, Kent?  Or perhaps, rather, what does God call us to do with the green pastures we’ve already been given? How does God long to nourish us, and many other sheep, even those who are strayed and wandering and looking for a safe place?  Don’t let the “thieves and bandits” scare you!  Jesus is sufficient; there is room for all of us in the sheepfold.  Jesus calls us to care for our true selves and to give ourselves to him while we care for our neighbors.  Today, may we listen to the Good Shepherd, and follow his Voice. AMEN.

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