The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
-from John 10
The theme for Quaker Knoll’s Day/Beginner camp this year was science. We practiced the scientific method, made careful observations about various kinds of plants and animals, and conducted all sorts of experiments.
For instance: did you know that if you soak an egg in vinegar for a day, the shell dissolves? The membrane just inside the shell doesn’t dissolve, though, so what you’re left with is this translucent wriggling pouch. One of the counselors carefully held it in her hand, and the kids could poke it and watch the yoke jiggle inside.
The outside membrane of the egg felt a little rubbery, so we hypothesized that it might bounce like a rubber ball. Sadly, it did no such thing, leading to a goopy mess on the floor of the lodge. No experiment is a failure, though! We learned that not all rubbery things are bouncy, which was a very important discovery.
One of the songs that we sang in music class, going along with the theme of exploring creation, was Our God is an Awesome God. Every fifteen minutes, Isaiah and I would get a new batch of campers and run through more-or-less the same slate of songs. One day, we sang Our God is an Awesome God a couple times, then asked the campers to name one awesome thing that God had created.
(Please forgive me if you’ve already heard me tell this story a dozen times. I just think it’s great.)
Most of the kids would offer something like tigers! or mountains! or trees! or whatever. One camper said that her favorite part of creation was friends, and that was really cute. I was completely unprepared, though, when a little girl that I hadn’t heard much from announced that her favorite thing in all of creation is bacon.
You’ve all seen me give children’s messages, so you know that I’m not the best at keeping my composure. I think I did pretty well, though! We pondered the deliciousness of bacon for a moment, and then (thinking that the moment was over) I went on to the next camper.
Oddly enough, his favorite thing was bacon. The entire batch of campers agreed, with a clear sense of the meeting that would make our clerk jealous, that bacon was objectively the best thing in the universe.
So, I tried to redirect the conversation. What about lakes? What about dogs? What about other people?
The choir of campers, over my attempts, continued to sing the glories of bacon.
I expanded it more- what about bigger things like the sun, and the stars and the moon, and the other planets like Venus and Mars. Those are awesome, right?
One of the campers gave a response that ended the discussion: you can’t dip Mars in maple syrup. Can’t argue with that.
I think there’s something here to be learned. Think about the first camper to step outside the expectations set up by my question. This camper knew, by experience, the glories of bacon. She did not speak from second-hand knowledge. She wasn’t proclaiming the greasy salty deliciousness of that which she had merely smelled.
You don’t bear witness like that to something you haven’t known experimentally.
Here’s my other favorite camp story- we spent all week singing This Little Light of Mine. We’d get out our candles, light each other’s candles up, then sing about not hiding them under bushels, but rather letting them shine for peace and love, all over Quaker Knoll, until Jesus comes.
It wasn’t until Friday, though, that I thought to ask the campers why we light candles. The answers I got were in two groups: we light candles on birthday cakes, and we light them because they’re pretty and they smell nice.
Only one camper could remember an instance of using a candle to spread light in the darkness. The rest of them didn’t have any concrete way to connect with the candle metaphor. I mean, if it’s dark in this room, you just flip on the lights! Problem solved.
It’s not as though they hadn’t liked the song, anyhow. It’s familiar and fun to sing, and you get to yell NO sometimes, so what’s not to like?
It was fascinating, though, to lay the candles aside and let them offer different kinds of light that the song could be about. Following their suggestions, we had flashlights, shooting stars, chandeliers, Jesus, sunbeams, lanterns, and some kind of glowing starfish- all kinds of light that actually meant something to the campers.
It changed how they sang the song. Some of that, I think, was just the pride that comes with taking ownership of something. A lot of it, though, was that they were singing about things that they knew experimentally. It wasn’t a second-hand witness, like the candles had been.
When they were singing about bonfires and fireworks and the moon above, their hearts were in the song. Your song rings true, when you sing what you know.
It got me thinking, Friends, about the quote that Davey read from George Fox. It’s Fox’s conversion story, really. He’s got all these questions about the Bible and worship and politics and spirituality, and he can’t find anyone who can give him the answers.
When he hits his lowest moment – when he has nowhere else to turn – that’s when the answer to his questions comes and find him.
There’s a lot we could unpack, in that one quote, about who Jesus is for George Fox. I’m mostly interested, though, in that last line: I knew this experimentally.
Fox heard a voice that spoke to his condition. He recognized that voice as belonging to his Savior, and his heart did leap for joy.
He didn’t have to settle for a second-hand understanding of Christ. He didn’t have to accept what the teachers and priests had to offer. He knew Jesus for himself, in his own experience. He got to eat the bacon for himself.
That’s the central claim that all Quakers make, whether we identify as evangelical or liberal or conservative or orthodox or universalist: we get to eat the bacon for ourselves.
And that got me thinking about how today’s Scripture passage pictures Jesus as the good shepherd and us as the sheep being tended.
You’re all good church folks, so I’m sure you’ve heard the sermons about how awful sheep are. They’re dirty. They’re not terribly intelligent. They’re capable of being frightened by nearly anything… including even colors that they haven’t seen before. They’re defenseless, possess no sense of direction, and unlike the poor slandered lemmings, they really might follow each other off a cliff.
It’s not complimentary, this business of being compared to sheep.
Don’t write the sheep off, though! Sheep, it turns out, can solve mazes and remember the solutions. They can recognize faces, both sheep and human. They can identify which plants they need to eat, when they’re sick.
Most importantly, though, for our purposes this morning: sheep can learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd.
I have heard a lot of sermons that belittle people by comparing our condition to that of sheep. We’re dumb and lazy, and we’re not paying attention to the right things, and we just like to follow the crowd, and we’re prone to being eaten by bears.
I may have preached like that, actually. Those sound like jokes that I might make. There’s something to be said, I suppose, for keeping a modest view of ourselves.
That’s not what this passage is about, though. This isn’t a negative comparison. This isn’t running us down, even humorously, even if we might need it.
The only way in which we’re described as sheep-like is in our ability to recognize the shepherd’s voice. Which is to say: what makes us like sheep is that part of us which is uniquely capable of responding to that which lies beyond us. The people of God are defined by this ability and willingness to listen and to be moved by what we hear.
But we – like most sheep – don’t live in a near silent world in which the shepherd’s voice is the only thing we can hear. We live in cacophony, in a racket, with a thousand voices vying for our attention. How do we know which one belongs to our shepherd? How do we know which voice to follow?
Well, we experiment. We have, for instance, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There’s a rubric by which we can evaluate the voices that we hear.
Listen to a voice, and then run your experiment: is this voice asking me to be kind? If it asks for the opposite, then it’s not the voice of the shepherd.
Listen to another voice, and then run your experiment: is this voice pointing me toward gentleness? If it is asking you to be harsh, then it’s not the voice of the shepherd.
Listen to another voice, and then run your experiment: is this voice reminding me to act in love? If it is not, then it’s not the voice of the shepherd.
In other words, there’s no sermon or hymn or scripture reading that will substitute for the work of listening and evaluating and responding to what you hear. In Christ, the freedom and the work are yours, Friends. You’ve got to eat the bacon for yourself.