4th Sunday of Easter
April 17, 2016
I have been anxiously awaiting the return of the swallows. Those amazing flyers who catch all their food while in flight, darting, swooping, skimming, gliding… through the air. They are an amazing sight to behold. I saw the summer’s first Tree Swallow on Wednesday checking out the nest boxes in my yard. It was good to see my iridescent blue friends again.
Later this summer, if you should take a boat out on the river and look up as you pass under the I-94 bridge, you will see thousands of swallows nesting in gourd-shaped mud nests under the concrete structure. These are called “Cliff Swallows.”
Or if you should take your boat close to the banks, you will see hundreds of small holes in the bank, with small little swallows darting in and out as they forage food for their young. These are called “Bank Swallows.”
Both Cliff Swallows and Bank Swallows are colony nesters. They build their nests in great colonies that can contain hundreds, and sometimes, even thousands of birds.
They can be noisy places, late in the nesting season, when young are screaming for food and the swarms of adults are calling out to them as they fly around.
Cliff Swallows and Bank Swallows have an incredible quality. Among the hundreds of birds calling as they swoop about the colony — all of which sound exactly the same to me, with their buzzes and squeaks — the little nestlings can recognize the voice of their parents and know when they’re coming with food, or know when it’s safe, or when to hide.
It is beyond my imagination to grasp how that is possible; but I do understand that being able to recognize the voice of their parents is key to their well-being and growth.
Jesus talks about something similar today: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never parish.” Jesus uses the natural world here to illustrate how our relationship to God is supposed to be.
He goes to the natural world… the world of sheep who recognize the voice of their master and understand instinctively that it means care and safety. It is something innate, automatic, instinctual. It’s not something they reason their way to, they know it.
The animal world provides us with many astounding examples of this gift of God’s creatures. I think the most amazing example that I’ve ever heard regards penguins. In the stunning National Geographic documentary, “March of the Penguins,” it was said that penguin parents are able to locate their chicks from among the hundreds of thousands of others by the sound of their voice. The chicks also can recognize their parents’ voices amidst the deafening din of penguin calls echoing across the vast Emperor Penguin colony.
This incredible ability of penguins helps them survive, grow and thrive.
For us, knowing the voice of our creator is just as important. That’s the point Jesus tries to make as he admonishes the people in today’s Gospel lesson for their inability to recognize Jesus. Hearing God’s voice amidst all the noise and distraction of our world is essential, so that we too can grow, be safe and thrive.
It seems humans don’t naturally know the voice of their creator like penguin chicks recognize the call of their parents. Unlike penguins or other animals of the natural world whose instincts protect, preserve and promote their well-being, we… when we follow our selfish human nature… seem to cut a swath of destruction around us.
That is why God comes among us in Christ. It is why God sends his Spirit… and gives us his Word. We need to learn how to recognize God’s voice. That is what Jesus says sets his followers apart from others. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
What Jesus speaks of here is not mental understanding or belief… it is a deep familiarity with God that guides us in our life. It is something deeply woven into our lives and being that is active, guiding us, strengthening us, giving us health and hope. It is a gift from God that comes to us… grows in us… over time, as we let God into our lives.
To let God’s voice work its way deep into our lives… that is our great life task… and this happens many different ways. Indeed, it must happen in different ways.
Being loved and nurtured by someone… this is one way the voice of God gets woven into our lives. This is because when we are loved, the mark of God is left on our hearts. And we can begin to know, innately, the voice of God, as it speaks to us through love. Being fortunate enough to know this gift leads us very far indeed in life.
That is something everyone should think about very carefully and seriously before they become parents. You have no idea how much strength and growth is given when parents are able to provide proper love and care for their child… or how much hurt is inflicted when they don’t.
As we grow older, and our world becomes bigger and much more complex, it is necessary that the voice and spirit of God come into our lives in other ways. First and foremost, there just isn’t any substitute for hearing the word of God. In order to come to know God’s voice, we need to hear the story of his love and work. We need to hear it again and again and let it grow in us… let it stitch itself into our hearts. As we hear and think about the word of God, it works inside us and reshapes the way we look at power, life, people… everything.
We can open ourselves to the spirit of God through other things as well. Jesus tells us to open ourselves in prayer. He tells us to enter into healthy and caring relationships with people, especially with those people we find it difficult to relate to.
Jesus tells us to pay attention to and learn from nature. Jesus tells us that we will learn the voice and power of God as we give our love and care to the poor and forgotten. Through the gifts of Holy Communion and Baptism we come to learn and recognize God’s voice.
I think through artistic and creative activities we come to know the voice of our creator, such as music, painting, building, gardening, etc.
If we are to be like those who Jesus describes in today’s Gospel lesson — “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” — We must allow God’s word to grow into our lives and being.
There are no shortcuts. There’s no wave of a magic wand and… “poof.” I now know my creator’s will and I can figure out how to follow him. Rather, this is a process that works over time, very quietly; as the way we think and act changes gradually, but powerfully.
It’s important to make clear that “knowing” the voice of God doesn’t mean we actually hear a voice speaking in our head giving us messages, or that we put big decisions before God and then wait for some kind of sign in the sky that we’re supposed to see, and then follow.
God’s “voice” works in us as we do the simple, hard work of living… making decisions, fulfilling responsibilities, reaching out to others, striving to be true and good. And the more we let the spirit and voice of God into our hearts, the better decisions we’ll make; the abler we will be to fulfill our responsibilities and reach out to others.
There are a lot of “voices” in this world that want our attention and our loyalty.
The ability of young Cliff Swallows, Bank Swallows and Emperor Penguins to recognize the life-bringer’s voice is essential because their world is incredibly noisy. There is so much screaming and calling and general ruckus in their world that they have to be able to recognize where life comes from.
It’s the same for us. Being able to recognize the voice of the life-bringer is essential because we too live in a noisy world. For example, cultural values of celebrity, power, wealth, etc…. These are screaming and calling at us constantly… in advertising, pop music, entertainment… all the expressions of mass media; but also in our local communities, and peer groups, friends and families… basically anywhere human nature expresses itself.
Those voices are very well known to us because we hear them all the time. But the voice of our creator and redeemer… that is a voice we want to be sure we recognize. That is a voice we want to be sure we know.
Jesus admonishes us to make ourselves ready, open ourselves to the word and spirit of God, and let the voice of God work its way deep into our hearts and lives. There it will abide and transform us. It will give us life and hope that our own selfish nature cannot extinguish. It will grant us the gift of the sheep… and the swallow… the simple, but powerful, ability to hear the life-bringer’s voice, and the faith and will to follow where it leads.