The main question in our Gospel reading is who Jesus is. People want to know if Jesus is the Messiah at the beginning of the passage. At the end, Jesus tells them plainly that He is one with the Father.
But as we prepare for a baptism, I am struck more with two things that Jesus says about us, about the people who follow him.
First, Jesus says that he holds us in his hands and that no one can snatch us away from him. That is Jesus’ promise to us, and it is good news.
In our baptismal service we make the same point. As I anoint our newest saint with holy oil, I will say, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” He won’t have any idea what is happening, of course. But that doesn’t matter because this sealing, this marking doesn’t depend on him. God does it. In baptism, God takes hold of us, and Jesus assures us that no one can snatch us away from God.
On this Mother's Day, I add that this love of God is a lot like mother love, like perfect mother-love.
The baptismal promise of God's enduring mother-love is the foundation of the entire Christian life. Jesus has claimed us for himself and will never let us go.
The second thing Jesus says about us in this passage is a little trickier. Jesus says “my sheep”—that’s us—“hear my voice.”
Now, that does depend on us, at least in part. And the fact is, a lot of the time we don’t hear Christ’s voice. Sometimes Christ’s voice comes through loud and clear. But other times it is like we get nothing.
I have been thinking this week about why that might be, about why we so often have a hard time hearing Christ’s voice even when we know that Christ is holding us close, that Christ is speaking words of love and guidance to us.
There are at least three big reasons we sometimes have a hard time hearing Christ.
The first is our distractedness. Contemporary Americans tend to be wildly overstimulated. We are busy. We are never far from our electronic devices. And many billions of dollars are spent every year in an effort to entertain us. All those distractions drown out the still small voice of God speaking to us. And so we don’t hear.
The second is sin. The big sins, of course, but not only them. At this point, my sins are mostly dull stuff. But at least one of my besetting sins is on display here at Saint David’s virtually every week. Most of you have seen me go after the sweets, and that is not a pretty picture. Each night as I pray, I review my day, and many is the day I have to confess that I was gluttonous once again.
It may not seem to matter all that much. So far my sweet tooth has not had a negative impact on my physical health. But gluttony is a sin. So are a whole host of other little things, bad habits that we get into without feeling particularly guilty about them. And every sin is like putting our fingers in our ears. And so we don’t hear Jesus’ voice.
But the third reason we have a hard time hearing Jesus’ voice is that we don’t know how to listen. Most of us are not particularly good at listening to each other, much less to God.
I learned this about myself as I was moving towards ordination. I commuted to Boston for one of my required courses. We would always take a ten-minute break in the middle of the class. I hated those breaks. I didn’t know any of my classmates, and it seemed like they were all best friends. So I would do whatever I could to kill time. I would make up pointless questions for the professor until he would send me away. I would go to the bathroom for as long as I could justify. But eventually I had to talk to my classmates.
So, I would end up making conversation while I waited for the professor to call us back to attention. I didn’t pay much attention to what my conversation partners were saying. I was too busy trying to hold up my end of the conversation.
But one day during that hateful break, I decided I would actually listen to what my classmate was saying. I would pay attention. I would act as if she might actually have something of value to say to me. And she did. There in the middle of the classroom, surrounded by all of our classmates, in the few minutes of our break, we established a genuine connection. Even as it was happening, I remember thinking two things. First, I ought to try this listening thing more often! But second, apparently I had hardly ever really listened to anybody in my life!
Not long after that, I became a chaplain intern at Baystate. In our program, we talked a lot about listening. We practiced listening skills. At night, I would tell Carrie about it, so she knew I was working on this. One evening, Carrie was talking about something, and I decided to do again what I had done with my classmate. I would really listen, not just wait until it was my turn to speak. Carrie felt the difference. Afterwards she said, “You just did that chaplain thing on me.” And I realized again what a poor listener I mostly was.
We should probably all work on listening to each other better. Carrie would certainly say that I should. But my point is this: If we are not great at actually listening to the people we love, the people right in front of us, the people who share our lives, if we are not great at listening to them, how can we expect to be good at listening to God? How can we expect to hear Jesus’ voice?
Listening, especially listening to God, is an acquired skill. It is something we have to learn, and something we have to practice.
That brings me back to baptism. Today we will baptize little Caesar Xavier. Today he will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ own forever. Today Jesus will embrace him, and no one and nothing can ever snatch him out of Jesus’ hand. As of today, that will be done.
But Caesar Xavier does not know how to hear Jesus’ voice. It is our job, starting with his parents and godparents, but a responsibility we all share, to teach him. And to teach him to listen, to help him hear Christ’s voice, we have to be working at it ourselves too.
That will look a little different for each of us. Jesus speaks to each of us in slightly different ways. But we know some practices that help. This is not rocket science. Joining with our brothers and sisters in worship helps. Sharing holy communion helps. Reading the Bible helps. Prayer helps. Acts of love and forgiveness and mercy help. Spending quiet time in God’s creation helps.
And so here is my invitation to you all. Spend time this week thinking about when Christ speaks to you, about where and how you hear Christ’s voice. Then practice listening. And my guess is, you will have an experience more or less like my experiences on the way to ordination. You will be thrilled at how good it feels to really listen for God’s voice. And you may be a little chagrined at how strange that feeling is!
My prayer for us all, and especially for little Caesar Xavier, is that we can become better at truly hearing our Lord’s voice. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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