Jesus the Shepherd and the Gate

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Easter 4, Year A – May 15, 2011
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2. 19-25; John 10.1-10
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

God is the shepherd who builds up a fold for you, stone by stone; God is the shepherd that calls you by name; God is the shepherd that knows every fear, every hurt, every pain; God is the shepherd that lovingly invites you into the fold again and again and again; God is the shepherd who stays alert through the night, and heals your wounds; God is the shepherd you can trust who offers you abundant life. (Adapted from Elizabeth McHan’s sermon June 13, 2007)

Grace to you and peace from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today is often coined, “Good Shepherd” Sunday. We hear much about shepherding and being led into pastures, especially in Psalm 23 and our Gospel reading from John. The Gospel reading can lend itself to confusion if we pay attention to how Jesus refers to himself. He first paints an image of himself as the shepherd, the one who calls and leads the sheep. That’s simple enough. We have probably seen many pieces of art depicting Jesus as a shepherd with a sheep gently lain upon his shoulders. But then there is an interesting twist in our story. Jesus says to those listening, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep”…and then he says it again, “I am the gate (John 10.7, 9).” Jesus is the shepherd and the gate? What could he possibly mean?

To help us think about what Jesus is saying I have a story for you. I have loved it since the first time it was told to me by Elly McHan. Some of you might remember Pastor Elly from when she visited us in early January this year. She is currently living in Jerusalem and is often exposed to the life and landscape of shepherds and sheep.

In that area of the world in which the Gospel of John takes place (and in which Elly lives) the hills are full of caves, and for centuries shepherds have used these natural caves as sheep folds. With bare hands, a shepherd would carefully stack rocks across almost the whole opening to the cave. He would then place thorny bushes on top of this rock wall to discourage wild animals or thieves and bandits from trying to sneak into his sheepfold, and at one edge of the cave he would leave a small opening for the sheep to go in and go out from. That opening was just wide enough for the shepherd to crouch down in—just wide enough for the shepherd to become the gate for the sheep.

And every night, the shepherd would call the sheep to follow him back to the fold. He would call them to follow the voice that they had grown to trust. When they reached the fold the shepherd would not simply stand by and make a head-count, hoping that he hadn’t lost any income that day, but the shepherd would stand in that opening, inviting the sheep to enter through him. And as they passed, one by one, through the gate of his legs, the shepherd would bend over and carefully check each and every sheep, calling it by name.

A good shepherd would know his sheep so well that he could tell the slightest difference, the slightest cut, the slightest strain, the slightest nervousness or fear. A good shepherd would not only know if a sheep were missing from the fold—a good shepherd would know exactly which beloved sheep was missing.

And every night, after gathering all of the sheep together, that shepherd would crouch down in that opening. The shepherd would not lounge or slouch, would not lean against the wall or drift off to sleep. There was no feather pillow to lay one’s head upon. Instead, he would crouch, knees bent, eyes peeled, ears straining for any sound that might threaten the shepherd’s sheep. With his rod held ready in his hands, still on his feet he would crouch ready to protect those beloved sheep against wild animals, thieves, or bandits with his very life. All through the night the shepherd would stay alert and ready. Through the deepest and darkest hours of the night, in driving wind, or pouring rain, the shepherd would stand his ground in order to protect his sheep.
(Adapted from Elizabeth McHan’s sermon June 13, 2007)

If we were to continue just one more verse in our reading today, we would hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10.11).” So Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the gate.

What I find so fascinating about Elly’s story is how the shepherd inspects and tends to each sheep each day. I love the imagery of a shepherd bending over to carefully inspect each sheep for wounds. The sheep must go into the pasture to graze and find food and water during the day, but there are dangers in the pasture. There are plenty of ways the sheep get scratched or hurt, get lost, or exposed to predators.

We too are not protected in the way we like to think about protection from the thorns and thistles of life, from the things and people that have the power to do harm, including our own selves. This kind of protection that frees us from wounds or suffering in life is far from what Jesus promises us. You and I are to follow the voice of Jesus into the world, into the pasture, with all its dangers and risks with the assurance that Christ is with us and ahead of us all along the way and that he has the power to heal you and me when we get wounded or hurt. And if we die in the midst of our following, then we finally pass through the gate, which is Jesus, into the love and care of God.

It is true that sometimes we don’t want to be inspected. We don’t want Jesus or others to know our wounds and where we have been hurt. It leaves us vulnerable and exposed because we have nothing left to hide. We want to do what the thieves and bandits do and bypass Jesus the gate.
Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of what he might find: lies, hate, anger, shame, inability to forgive, guilt, pride, addiction, self-hate. But the care the shepherd gives the sheep, when I say ‘sheep’ I’m talking about you and me, is not for the purpose of shameful exploitation, but rather for the purpose of healing so that life abundant can begin to take place.

We don’t have to put up our guard with Jesus and our walls of defense. He has been to the depths of suffering, our suffering, and he knows what has taken place there. You cannot run from your wounds…let Jesus the Good Shepherd heal them. When you are given the permission to embrace your pain for what it is, knowing that Christ does not condemn you for it, then there is finally the power of God in your life to make it new and to heal you.

Jesus says in verse 9: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes to only kill, steal, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:9-10).” God desires life for all people, and not just life…abundant, good life. Being “saved” and life abundant doesn’t mean going to heaven when you die, but has a much greater meaning. It means salvation, healing, and wholeness in this life, both now and in the life to come.

This is not a life lived in wealth and no worries, but rather a life listening to the voice of Jesus and following where he leads. It is a life of being drawn to people who build us up and say, “You are a beloved child of God, created good and in God’s own image.”

In a few moments, Aaron, you will hear the words, “Child of God,” because that is what you are and what you will always be. This is what God calls you and there could not be a more loving name in which to be called. We are all created, loved, and redeemed by God. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us who God is.

God is the shepherd who builds up a fold for you, stone by stone; God is the shepherd that calls you by name; God is the shepherd that knows every fear, every hurt, every pain; God is the shepherd that lovingly invites you into the fold again and again and again; God is the shepherd who stays alert through the night, and heals your wounds; God is the shepherd you can trust who offers you abundant life. (Adapted from Elizabeth McHan’s sermon June 13, 2007)

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.