“. . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
IV Easter – April 13, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
The Church calendar marks this fourth Sunday of Easter aside as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. Today, in honor of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are beginning what I hope will be a red-letter day of tradition in this church. Today we will lift up and honor all those who are called to the important ministry of the church known as Eucharistic Ministers and Visitors.
Eucharistic Ministers and Visitors administer the bread and the wine at the communion rail as well as bring the sacred elements of the Eucharist to those who cannot be here with us because of illness or infirmity.
It is an ancient ministry, one practiced by the Early Church from its earliest times. We catch a glimpse of it in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. As anyone who is a Eucharistic Minister or Visitor can tell you, this ministry provides spiritual nourishment not only to those who receive it, but also to those who administer the sacrament at the altar or the bedside.
I want to touch on this aspect of ministry by focusing in, for a moment on these words of Jesus, “. . .and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I remember being taught, as a very young nurse, that the sense of hearing is the last to leave the body at the time of death.
The nuns taught us to be very careful what we said as we tended to the dying, and instructed us to encourage family members to speak to their loved one, even if s/he could not respond. – even after the moment of death.
As one who has impaired hearing, I have come to learn that hearing is not something one does with one’s ears. The ears are simply the vehicle of hearing. One actually hears with one’s brain. Which may be the reason hearing is one of the pathways to deep memory. We not only recognize voices, but we remember things associated with voices – vivid memories of celebration or sadness. The sound of emotion – laughter, tears, fear, joy – triggers other occasions, other experiences, and informs, shapes and deepens our present experience.
It was ten years ago last month that my father died, but there are times that I can hear his voice as if he were still here. I do not have many happy memories of my father, but one of the clearest memories may well be one of the oldest. It’s what I have come to call my father’s “Penny Voice.” I’ll explain.
I must have been four or five years old when I got the Measles. Kids don’t get the Measles any more. There are vaccines to prevent that childhood disease, and I am glad of it. All these many years later, I can vividly remember the misery of it – the fever, the dull, constant ache in the bones, the sensitivity in my eyes to light, the horrible, burning itch. It was dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.
I was the eldest of four, and we were all less than two years apart in age. My brother was a very sickly child and we had no medical insurance. In the way of childhood diseases, I suspect we three kids all had the Measles, all at the same time. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister.
My father was working double shifts at the factory just to help make ends meet, so I don’t remember seeing a great deal of him as a young child, but I have a very clear memory of him in the midst of my worst moment with the Measles.
I remember lying alone in my bed late at night, too sick to call out for help. My body was hot and feverish and there wasn’t one place that did not burn and sting and itch but I was too week to even attempt to scratch. My mouth was so dry it felt like cotton; my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I needed a drink of water, but I was too weak to get it for myself. I couldn’t cry, but whimpered.
My mother must have been overwrought, taking care of her pregnant self and tending to three small children under the age of five, but I couldn’t have had that kind of awareness then. I just felt sick and abandoned. Whatever I knew of God in my tiny child’s mind and imagination, I tried to call out to Him for help. I think that may have been my first real experience of prayer, despite my faithful attendance at daily mass with my grandmother..
Suddenly, my father appeared in my room, perhaps just home from work and sent in by my mother to check on me. I was relieved and grateful, but too sick to move. The only thing I could muster was a pathetic whimper that escaped from my throat that sounded less than what I meant to say. “Daddy,” I whimpered.
The sound of my voice melted my father’s heart right in front of me. He gasped out loud and put his hand over his mouth as he walked toward me.
My father knelt down at my bedside and as his face came closer to mine, I could see that he was crying. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he murmured. “Daddy’s here.”
And, with that, he swooped me up in his arms and took me into the bathroom where he soaked my body in a tepid bath of baking soda and water.
I remember feeling instant relief as he pressed baking soda compresses onto the angry red blotches that covered my body. But, it was his words, the sound of his voice, which washed over me like healing oil. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he said, over and over, “Daddy’s here. It’s okay.”
I said this was my father’s “Penny voice”. My father had several voices – the “Warning voice which was something akin to a low growl. He also had what I called his “St. John’s Athletic Club voice.” – which was where he went to have a few beers with the guys. That voice was always the prelude to the “Angry voice” which lead to All Things Unpleasant.
After my father dried off my body and dabbed cool, calamine lotion on my Measles, he started to sing to me, softly. My father was not a lullaby kind of guy, so the song he sang to us as babies would most likely be his favorite song of the moment. I have a clear memory of my father walking a teething youngest sister while singing, “Your cheatin’ heart.” (You’d have to know my father to understand.) He was singing it, however, in his “Penny voice.”
My father’s lullaby to me that night was this:
All these years later, whenever I hear that song, I cannot hear it without remember my father’s voice. I cannot hear that song without connecting it to my father’s love. For me, that song is an association with an answer to one of my first memories of an experience of prayer. I was quite certain that God had sent my father into my room – wonder of wonders and miracles of miracles – to care for me in my misery.
I know the sound of the voice of God because I heard it that night in my room. I know the voice of kindness and mercy of God, and the comfort and healing of Jesus because I heard it once in my father’s “Penny voice.” I understand now that that voice, that song-as-lullaby, has shaped and formed me in more ways than I can fathom – including my theology, my sense of hope, my faith, indeed, my vocation.
Which is what I want to say to you about the importance of the ministry of those who administer the Eucharistic Sacrament. When you hold up the wafer and say to someone, “The Body of Christ,” they are able to say, “Amen” because they hear in you the sound of Christ’s voice and they are able to follow.
Your voice will be one of the ones people will remember when Jesus welcomes them into heaven. Those to whom you minister will know the voice of Jesus because they have come to know your voice. The real miracle of this ministry, however, is that you will know the sound of the voice of Jesus in the grateful sound of their “Amen.”
Whenever the voice of mercy and kindness and compassion is spoken, whenever the sound of gratitude and love are heard, the voice of Jesus speaks. Who could resist those sounds? Whose ears to not strain to hear that voice that promises life abundant in green pastures?