I still hear his voice in my head almost twenty years later.
Whenever I hear or read something about six feet, which happens a lot these days, I hear the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Before he became nationally famous (perhaps infamous) as candidate Barack Obama's outspoken pastor, Dr. Wright preached a sermon in Chicago about sheep.
He told us that sheep have notoriously limited eyesight, and can only see six feet in front of their faces.
He reminded us that there is so much we do not see behind and beyond everything we do, and he rattled off a long litany of attractive dangers, every one of them followed in a steady
drumbeat by the warning "Six feet!"
Perhaps this is why John's gospel immediately follows up the story of the man born blind, and the Pharisees whose blindness remains, with talk about sheep.
With limited visibililty, voice recognition is key; apparently sheep have much more talent in
their ears than in their eyes.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are you who are still at least six feet away from others and yet have come or have continued to love them.
Blessed are you who continue hoping for a brighter tomorrow we cannot see from today.
These days we feel our limited visibility acutely.
The timeline and politics of pandemic are spectacularly fuzzy.
Not for lack of trying, but there is so much we can't see, including the virus we are fighting.
In a poverty of vision, we have more reliance on voices.
My grandmother, who was deaf as a rock, couldn't hear the TV blaring six feet in front of her but could always hear me whispering across the yard.
Selective hearing is real.
We select what we hear; we tune in on certain voices and sounds in the sea of noise.
In a crowded marketplace of bandits and thieves and hired hands—voices that are working hard to take rather than to give—Jesus says the sheep hear and follow the shepherd's voice.
The endless question, of course, is who gets to be the shepherd.
Is it the president, the governor, the mayor, the scientist, the doctor, the protestor, the
radio host, the newscaster, the preacher, the relative, the international organization, the
corporate advertiser, the social media expert, one of the various voices in your head?
Who's your shepherd in today's pounding cacophony?
To what voice do you tune in?
How do you recognize the holy shepherd in the shrill and shouting crowd?
This is a notoriously difficult question, discerning the voice of God among so many, and there is a sad track record and body count from those who have gotten it wrong.
Elijah once waited out earthquake, wind and fire – do you remember? – and recognized God in sheer silence.
God is often quieter than a burglar.
Indeed, it seems that quiet is an essential quality of God's voice.
If not physical volume, there is a quietness of calm, a gentleness, an absence of the noise of
anxiety in our shepherd's voice, even when it is raised.
Perfect love casts out fear, John wrote, so if you hear fear, it's not God you are listening to.
And if it is taking life rather than giving it, it's not God you are listening to.
Bandits and thieves and hired hands ask, "What's in it for me?"
Our Shepherd works on what's in it for you and others.
Is the voice seeking abundance for itself at the expense of others, or abundance for others at its own expense?
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus says next.
Does the voice you are hearing diminish and destroy, or does it restore and renew?
Of course, as with anyone, the more time you spend together, the more clearly you recognize any voice.
The more you pray, especially without talking; the more you read Scripture; the more you serve your neighbor; the more you love, the more likely you are to pick out God's voice and also stay peaceful when you don't hear it.
Silence doesn't necessarily equal absence.
Neither does understanding equal security.
I understand the news better than I understand God's will.
I understand fear better than I understand love.
When Jesus speaks to his disciples, who presumably knew his voice, they did not understand
what he was saying to them.
Thankfully, the shepherd's effectiveness does not depend on the comprehension of the sheep.
Good parenting doesn't always hinge on the child knowing what is happening.
It is enough that the child and the sheep hear and recognize and therefore trust the voice.
And the voice will keep talking and singing and soothing until it reaches the ears it loves.
The truth is, we have only a foggy idea of what is going on and a trustworthy shepherd walking us through it.
We are not alone in this valley of the shadow.
We are not alone with our enemies, visible or otherwise.
So insists David, seasoned shepherd boy and king of Israel, who sings his grateful praise to God and concludes with a remarkable line:
Surely goodness and mercy shall chase me all the days of my life.
David had been followed by a jealous king who wanted to kill him.
He knows what it is like to be hunted.
That, he sings, is what goodness and mercy do.