Scripture: John 10:22-30
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of the great classical singers of the twentieth century. His renditions of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert are remarkable. I have a recording of Mozart’s Magic Flute opera, with his name on the jacket. And I was startled, after I had listened to that recording many times, to learn that Fischer-Dieskau doesn’t actually sing on that recording at all. He only speaks. There is a fair amount of spoken narration in that opera, and they paid this fantastic singer not to sing, but only to speak that narration. His speaking voice is that mellifluous! It’s the voice I’d like to have reading me bedtime stories—the voice of God.
You may well know a voice that conveys something radiantly good to you—a vocalist, a friend, a family member. When I was selling audio equipment after college, I regularly had to phone the dealer of some of the products we sold, and the woman I dealt with had the most appealing voice. I never met her, but her voice had a soothing sweetness to it, like honey.
Mostly, though, when I call to mind comforting voices, I think of my mother. When my brother and I were children, we often played across the street from our house—baseball or football in a field there. And when it was time for dinner, my mother’s voice could be heard above any other sound: “Woo-ooo.” And Tim and I would know it was time to eat.
Artists of all stripes have painted or sculpted renditions of Jesus, and most of us have probably imagined what he might have looked like. I’m not sure, though, that I had ever thought what Jesus might have sounded like. What kind of voice would he have had to comfort the way he did, to reassure, to challenge, to bless? I imagine the baritone Fischer-Dieskau’s voice, and you likely imagine an entirely different voice. In any case, the gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus had a voice that was arresting in some way. He spoke and people listened. I think of the last line of a well-known hymn: “Speak, and, behold! we answer; command, and we obey!” (“The Voice of God Is Calling,” v. 4). In the gospel, when Jesus speaks, people pay attention. They heed his call.
Passages in which God or Jesus speaks are a regular feature of the biblical narrative. In a world in which we seldom, if ever, hear an audible voice from the heavens, though, we may well wonder how we’re to hear that voice now. This morning we lift up some of the myriad ways that holy voice is still heard in the land.
It’s strikingly a propos to reflect on the voice of Jesus on the day we honor and celebrate the music-making here at Federated. Again and again I count myself incredibly blessed to share in worship and music here in this wonderful church. Beautiful voices, sacred voices, proliferate here. And I mean human voices, certainly, but also the voices of instruments and bells. When I hear Federated voices inviting me to “Come to the water,” or reminding me, in Matt Maher’s compelling song, “Lord, I need you”; when I hear the choir singing Rutter’s “For the Beauty of the Earth” or Handel’s “Hallelujah” raising the rafters, I am filled with a hope and a love that, in palpable ways, change me and the world.
Music conveys something of God’s voice, doesn’t it—different music for different ones of us. So, too, do spoken voices—voices that, by their sound or the words they speak, transmit something of the richness of the presence of God. For some of us, our fathers have done that. For others of us, the voices of our mothers have borne a holy note. For me, it was some of both. My father’s voice rang with a kind of intensity and a great sense of humor and a passion for inclusion and justice. My mother’s voice has about it a kind of warmth and lilt that invites you in. Their voices echo most for me, I suppose, in the story I remember them telling me about my birth. When I arrived in the world, they would tell me as a child, “Mommy was glad, and Daddy was glad, and everybody was glad,” and then they would clap their hands together gleefully—conveying in a rich way how glad they were that I was alive. That’s a holy voice.
Sometimes holy voices convey their message with spoken words. Sometimes, it’s with a gesture or a look—a hug, say, or beaming eyes. Sometimes it’s in singing. And sometimes it’s in written words. I can’t tell you how often I have been lifted by words on a page. I can hear a holy voice in fiction—Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, or David James Duncan’s The Brothers K. Or in poetry—Shakespeare’s “Good night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2) or Mary Oliver’s “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life” (“The Summer Day”).
And often for me that sacred voice has radiated through theology. Some forty years ago, I read some gripping words by the theologian Paul Tillich. In a sermon, he said this: “Sometimes [at the very worst moments in life] a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace” (The Shaking of the Foundations, p. 162). I was reminded of this when I ran into Elaine Witmer and Nancie Skonezny going through books in our church library the other day, and they asked me—voices again—if I’d like the copy of Tillich’s sermons.
And yet more theology. I learned from the great Jewish theologian Elie Wiesel, he who had survived a Nazi concentration camp, of the presence of God in our suffering—that God doesn’t usually take away our suffering, but that God walks with us in our grief and pain and loss. I learned a variation of that transforming truth from the great Protestant minister, William Sloane Coffin. In a sermon I have quoted before and will certainly quote again, Coffin reflects on the agony of losing his son Alex in a car accident years ago. When a woman asked him shortly after that death where God was in it all and why God had seen fit to take Alex, Coffin said to her, “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ . . . My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
So many voices conveying to me the richness of God. And many of those voices, unlike in earlier generations and centuries, coming, we remember this Mother’s Day, from women. When I was in seminary, I was totally bowled over by the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible opening up the second story of creation in the book of Genesis. We all know of Adam and Eve, and we all think of that story as saying that Eve was subordinate to Adam. Trible conveyed that those first two human beings were absolute equals; that when the rib was taken from the first earth creature (which is what “Adam” means), there was as yet no gender differentiation. It’s only once that rib is removed and the second human is created that we then have two genders. And suddenly that story was entirely fresh, and it opened up new worlds for me (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 72-143).
And just this week, I found my world expanded in a different way by some words of the 14th century theologian Julian of Norwich. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who has such a fresh and vivid way of thinking about God, quoted Julian as saying this: “Greatly ought we to rejoice that God dwells in our soul; and more greatly ought we to rejoice that our soul dwells in God. Our soul is created to be God’s dwelling place, and the dwelling place of our soul is God.” God and we are entirely wrapped up in each other (Showings, Chapter 54). And Rohr adds to what Julian has said: “Once we allow the entire universe to become alive [with holiness] for us, we are living in an enchanted world. Nothing is meaningless; nothing can be dismissed. It’s all whirling with the same beauty, the same radiance. In fact, if I could name the Big Bang in my own language, I’d call it the Great Radiance. The inner radiance of God started radiating at least 13.8 billion years ago. We must realize that we are the continuation of that radiance in our small segment of time on Earth. We can either allow it [to] flow through us or we can deny it, which is to deny the divine image” (Daily Meditation, May 10, 2019).
One more mother of the church I’d like to mention as we hear today from voices who have spoken holy truth, and that is Rachel Held Evans. Some of you know her books, some her blogs or tweets. Held Evans was just thirty-seven when she died a week ago yesterday, of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. She left a husband and two children, ages three and nearly one. Over her writing desk at home, there was a little sign: “Tell the truth.” And that’s what she so tenaciously sought to do.
Held Evans grew up in an evangelical church, and loved her religious roots. They are what kept her moored. She came to struggle with her faith, though, identified, as it was, with a limited way of seeing God and the world, and with a brand of politics she could no longer espouse. She became known as both a fierce and civil questioner of faith, calling it to task when it failed to be redolent of the God of justice and grace. She had no patience with a church that defined itself narrowly, a church that welcomed only certain people—usually people who are “like us”—a church that pushed women and people of color and LGBTQ people to the margins. She questioned her roots and thereby pushed us all to find a deeper truth. Tell the truth, she said.
She had a wry sense of humor. As she contracted the disease that finally took her life, she joked of her frustration that it was causing her to miss “Game of Thrones.” In what is probably her most well-known book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she writes of taking “the Bible’s instructions on women as literally as possible for a year.” As she did, “she grew out her hair, wore only long skirts and other modest clothing. She camped outside when she had her period (Leviticus 15), remained silent in church (I Corinthians 14), and [my favorite] held a sign proclaiming ‘DAN [her husband] IS AWESOME!’ just inside [her town’s] borders (Proverbs 31: ‘Her husband is respected at the city gates’)” (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lauraturner/rachel-held-evans-death-doubt-evangelical-christianity). I’m not seeing any reason why Mary couldn’t do the same thing for me! I’m just sayin’!
In questioning Christianity, Held Evans had a way of homing in on what really mattered. She saw faith with fresh eyes. And she had an unerring sense for the stuff of God. Hers was a voice that told the truth.
“My sheep recognize my voice,” says Jesus. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:27-28, The Message and NRSV). The voice of Jesus speaks to us in countless ways. Do we hear it? When I was a young man, and still very much lost and wandering, I don’t know if I ever told my mother about the depths of my despair. She certainly sensed it though, and one day she wrote me a note acknowledging how difficult it must be for me. And what I will always remember was that she quoted to me those luminous words of the poet Rilke: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (Letters to a Young Poet, Letter 4).
That was a holy voice to me. It was the voice of a deep and reassuring truth. Listen. Listen. Listen for the voice of the Holy One. It comes. Pay attention. And together, we will follow.