The Recognition Problem
“My sheep hear my voice.”
Can you hear God’s voice in the midst of all the other voices competing for our attention? It’s not always easy, and yet I think it just might be one of the most important challenges that we face. Sometimes I call it the “recognition problem”. How do we recognize God’s voice speaking to us in the midst of all the noise? How can we know what God is calling us to do?
Often, I find our Bible readings quite unhelpful on this point. So often in scripture, God calls someone, and they seem to know right away that it’s God calling, they know the voice and they hear what God is saying. Last week for example, after Saul has been blinded by his experience on the road to Damascus, we’re told that God called Ananias, and Ananias answered right away, “here I am.” God told him to go to Saul, and Ananias pushed back a bit, but eventually went. And I actually find it a little disconcerting to see how quickly Ananias recognized God’s voice and heard what God was saying, because personally I find it a lot more difficult than that. Discerning God’s voice is one of my biggest challenges.
So I like the fact that in this Easter season we do get some scripture readings that address this recognition problem head on. On that first Easter day, Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, thinking him to be the gardener. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples spend a long time walking beside an apparent stranger before they figure out that it’s Jesus. And last Sunday we had the story of the stranger on the beach who calls out to the fisherman to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and then invites them to join him for breakfast. Sometimes recognition takes a while; sometimes discernment is a process.
In today’s gospel reading, the recognition problem is front and centre. The response to Jesus is divided: is he the Messiah or not? Some say yes, some say no. The naysayers say to him, “How long are you going to keep us guessing? Are you the Messiah or not – tell us straight!”
It seems like a reasonable question. But Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.
It reminds me of the time they asked Louis Armstrong to give them a definition of swing music.
I used to play in my high school jazz ensemble, and this is the sort of music we played:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62ZSQUyU00s The Benny Goodman Orchestra: Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)
That was the Benny Goodman Orchestra playing Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing). That’s swing music, the music that came out of the jazz scene in the US in the 1930s. Benny Goodman was one of the greats. So was Louis Armstrong.
One day someone came up to Louis Armstrong, and asked him to define swing.
Louis looked up at him and said, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” That kind of reminds of Jesus’ answer in today’s gospel. Swing music isn’t something you define, it’s something you experience, something your body moves to. I know swing because I grew up playing it.
(sing a few bars of In the Mood)
Now that’s swing. You don’t define it, you feel it, you move to it, it’s got a groove that swings. If you went to high school in the 50s, you know swing because you danced to it at high school sock hops.
But if you don’t know swing, I could tell you that it’s a jazz music form that incorporates call and response with an emphasis on the off beat, and you still won’t know swing. Because that’s not how we know it.
When Jesus is asked if he’s the Messiah, he doesn’t tell them straight, because that’s not how we know it. We know it because we know his voice, we belong to his sheep, we follow him, because we’re in a relationship and we’ve experienced something.
You see, the solution to the recognition problem is faith. But faith is not knowing the facts about Jesus. Faith is an experience, faith is a relationship, faith is a life-giving, intuitive, experiential sense of belonging and trust. That’s how you come to know God. That’s how you come to recognize God’s voice.
It’s there in the image of the good shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd cares for the sheep, day after day, night after night, leading them in to the safety of the sheepfold and leading them out to green pastures and still waters. The sheep belong to the shepherd and the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
“I know my sheep and my sheep know me. They follow me because they know my voice. My sheep hear my voice.”
Some of you know that I used to coordinate the Sunday School here at Trinity. One Sunday we were talking about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and so we played this big game in Bender Hall as an illustration. The way it worked was this: all the kids, probably about twenty of them, were blindfolded and put at one end of the hall. They were the sheep. The hall was filled with obstacles, tables and chairs and ropes placed randomly in the hall. There was an adult who was the Good Shepherd who went to the far side of the hall. The idea was that the Good Shepherd would call to the sheep, and give them instructions so that they could get through the obstacles and across the hall to reach the Good Shepherd. But the problem was, we also had some older kids who were the wolves. They would wander through the hall giving the sheep bad advice so that they would get lost and disoriented and not reach the Good Shepherd.
We did this two times. The first time we did, we chose someone to be the Good Shepherd that the children didn’t know, that they had just met that morning. The result … was a disaster. The wolves gave the children all sorts of bad advice, it was so noisy that the kids couldn’t pick out the Good Shepherd’s voice, and those poor little blindfolded sheep were bumping into obstacles all over the hall.
Then we did it again. But this time we chose a Good Shepherd that the children knew really well, and who could call the children by name. The wolves did their best to confuse them, it was just as noisy and chaotic as the first time around – but this time the children could hear the Good Shepherd’s voice because they knew it and they could trust what the Good Shepherd was telling them, and they all made it safely around the obstacles to the other side of Bender Hall.
Hearing God’s voice is grounded in a relationship. The solution to the recognition problem is faith. Faith as a relationship, faith as experience, faith as a life-giving, intuitive, experiential sense of belonging and trust. That’s how you come to know God’s voice. That’s what makes it possible to hear God’s voice in the midst of all the competing voices of our world.
It’s not an exclusive thing. It’s not like some people are born with the voice recognition software and some aren’t. No, we’re all invited into this life-giving relationship of faith. Learning to hear God’s voice is more of a discipleship thing than an exclusive thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, discernment is still a challenge. Hearing God’s voice, figuring out what God is saying, trying to get a sense of where God is calling us as individuals and as a church, and then responding, that will always be a challenge. It’s a challenge that we work through together. We pray, we read scripture, we worship, we go to those places we talked about last Sunday. We listen to each other, we learn from our tradition, we seek the inspiration of art and nature. We try stuff and learn from our experience, we pay attention to our own inclinations and passions, and we bring all that into community, into communion with God and communion with each other.
Discernment, the recognition problem, is a big part of our faith. And it is our faith, faith understood as an experience, a relationship and a way of life, that’s what will enable us to hear God’s voice amidst all the other voices of our world.
It’s kind of like swing. The more you love it, the more you dance to it, the better you’ll know it when you hear it.
Homily. Yr C Easter 4, May 8 2022, Trinity
Readings: Acts 9.36-43; Psalm 23; Rev 7.9-17; John 10.22-30
Image by Lucas Allmann