Our Master's Voice

Apr. 17, 2016

Acts 9.36-43; Rev. 7.9-17; John 10.22-30

Many of you probably remember the little dog named Nipper. You probably wouldn't have known his name, but I'm sure you'd remember his picture that was painted more than a century ago. The dog got his name as a puppy because he ran after his master "nipping" at his heels. It was a constant game with the dog...like saying "tag you're it"! Nipper's famous picture is that of the little dog who looks into the trumpet shaped speaker of an old timey phonograph. The dog's head is cocked slightly to one side as he recognizes his master's voice coming through the phonograph.

The dog was a Fox Terrier mix born in Bristol, England and it belonged to the Englishman Mark Bauraud. The dog was three years old when his master died and he was taken to Liverpool to live with his master's younger brother, Francis who was a struggling painter. This was in the late 1880's. The painter inherited not just his brother's dog, but also one of those early Edison victrolas. The victrolas were able to record sound on wax cylinders and the sound could them be played back. Several recorded wax cylinders came along with the machine and it turned out they were recordings of the deceased brother speaking. When the painter first played them back, the dog heard the recordings in puzzled and shocked recognition...it was his master's voice. The dog was entranced by the experience. And Francis Bauraud painted that image which became an internationally recognized trademark of the RCA record company. I guess we can all identify with the little dog who heard his master's voice.

This reminds me of the interaction between Mary Magdalene and our Lord on Easter Sunday morning when Mary didn't recognize the Lord because she had to look through her grieving tears. It wasn't until the Lord spoke her name that she was startled into recognition. It adds further substance to Jesus' comment from the gospel today that, "my sheep know the sound of my voice. I know them and they follow me". The shepherd's voice calls to us and guides us "even though (we) walk through the valley of the shadow of death". We can say despite that it is our Shepherd's call, which allows us to say, "I will fear no evil."

But a major problem does occur. It's the problem of "deaf" sheep? In my life, I have always wondered why some people seem never to hear the voice of the Master. And why some seem to wander off into all kinds of dangerous and belligerent ways and may go to the grave without hearing that voice? Why is that?

I have a theory. There's a parallel between learning to speak a language and learning to hear and act as a person of faith. We humans are exposed to language from the beginning of life. We learn language by hearing it and by using it to interact with those around us. It's just something that happens automatically. It's like when President John Kennedy was asked by a high school student how he happened to become a war hero. Kennedy said, "Well, (it just happened) I didn't have a whole lot to do with it...they just sank my boat." Language likewise happens...it's all around us. And language experts believe that we have a natural capacity to acquire and use language. But there's this narrow window to learn a language. Experts have found that if a child is not exposed to language by 18 to 24 months...the ability to learn language passes by. There have been a number of famous examples of this, but probably the best-known example was the Wild Boy of Avignon in France in the early 19th century. The boy was literally raised by wild animals. It was a kind of a real life example of Walt Disney's Jungle Book. But the boy was never able to acquire language and speech to any significant degree...he could grunt and point and gesture, but he couldn't even say "Me Tarzan, you Jane."

Likewise, we get the rudiments of faith from our interactions with people of faith around us. Learning faith is something that begins when we first interact with the faith community...the Church. In the Church, we become babies interacting with more mature Christians who teach the language and life faith to us. Now, I would argue that we have a built in capacity (most of us would call it our "soul") to respond spiritually to God. And it's a part of us from the time when we are very young. So, even as infants we begin to adapt and to learn and to respond to the voices around us--so that we learn the language and life of faith. It's a lot like learning to speak our natural language...BUT we have to be exposed to it in significant ways in order to be able to hear the voice of our Master. I wouldn't say one couldn't acquire faith if one was not exposed early in life, but it certainly retards our abilities for faith development by being deprived of a church experience.

Often when people find a major focus for their lives...be it raising a child or children, or practicing a profession, or following a vocation, it's because that person has heard a voice that suddenly found a meaning in them to be driven in that particular direction. In fact, one could say that our Christian faith is a calling. That is certainly the meaning in the gospel today. When Jesus said, "My sheep hear the sound of my voice."

The message of the gospel is that Jesus is calling...I suppose the question is can we hear him? Do we heed his voice? In the words from our Hymnal, "Jesus calls us o're the tumult of our life's wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, 'Christian, follow me." Amen.

The Reverend WA Ray
St Thomas Church
Diamondhead, MS 04/17/16