“Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”John 10: 11-18
This is our final sermon of the 2020 Sizzlin’ Summer Sermon series, and my, how time has flown- or hasn’t it?
Today’s parable comes from the Gospel of John, which we haven’t visited very often this summer. In some ways, the gospel writer John presents Jesus’ parables as someone who explains a joke. He drives the point home, maybe a little too energetically, just to be sure you have understood his point- completely.
So, first, a question: when you picture Jesus sharing these words we’ve just heard about the Good Shepherd, what setting do you see in your mind’s eye?
What backdrop do you imagine? You might picture a pastoral scene, maybe a green, rock-strewn mountainside, Jesus seated on a rock with his disciples at his feet, and a flock of sheep as an object lesson nearby. It’s a scene that’s easy on the eyes and a speech that stands well on its own. But this scenario, sorry to say, would be mistaken and we’d be taking these famous words of Jesus way out of context.
In the flow of John’s Gospel, this speech actually takes place in the city of Jerusalem, part of a testy exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus had just healed a man born blind -on the Sabbath-(forbidden)- and the authorities were in an uproar. There was trouble afoot. These comforting words come in the midst of conflict, not from an ivory tower.
This newly sighted man was expelled from the synagogue and Jesus’ authority was questioned. Jesus’ way, his message, his reputation- was up for grabs. And Jesus chose the image of a shepherd to set the record straight. He wasn’t drawing the image from shepherds he had seen in the fields outside the city, but rather from the pages of Holy Scripture. He drew from uncontested understandings, common to all.
The greatest figures in Hebrew Scriptures had at one time been shepherds. Moses tended flocks on the mountains of Midian. Young King David defended his flocks against lions. Noah, long, long ago, had been an archetypal shepherd, you could say, herding all God’s creatures safely onto the Ark, two by two.
Even from his own life, Jesus could point to shepherds who were present just at the right time in important ways. It was to shepherds that the news of his own birth was first delivered; those men out in the fields were the first to be invited to be present at the manger, and were the only people to hear the heavenly choir of angels sing.
In a time of trouble, Jesus redirected those who angrily confronted him with a simple image; the steadfast, patient strength of a shepherd.
We would do well to carry the message of Jesus’ calm resolve into the headlines of our living of these days- all around our land and into our church family as well. It isn’t an easy thing. We might be hard pressed to find a shepherd we want to follow these days, so let’s turn our attention to Jesus this morning.
Jesus is in an essential and unbreakable communion with us this morning. Jesus has given his life for us. His is an unconditional gift of caring that places his friends in the center. His care does not run away when trouble arrives. In fact, Jesus steps forward to give his life when his friends’ lives are threatened. His readiness is a mark of being the true good shepherd: the shepherd gives his life, the sheep are safe.
Jesus is a different kind of hero than what we are accustomed to, who through courage and calm is ever present, in life and death; who cares, supports and protects his flock. Jesus protects his flock by laying down his life for them, placing them before his own needs and wants; putting others first. That’s a tall order to live by. But that’s the role of a shepherd, as Jesus lives it out. When Jesus arrives, our fears are released.
Let me say that again; when Jesus arrives, our fears are released. Do you believe that? To be released from fear is a gift beyond words.
Fear is something with many other names; anxiety, pressure, dread, apprehension, uncertainty. Through these days and months of the Coronavirus, fear is a constant, though largely silent companion. We push it away, out of our concern for others, but it is still very much present, barely under the surface- and we are just simply not accustomed to living this way. I don’t know if a sheep who is lost and alone feels fear, but I know that I have felt a sense of fear in places where I never imagined I would before… in grocery stores and the post office, carefully walking through shopping aisles, following the arrows to go in the proper direction, or patiently waiting in line for my turn at the counter. The caution we exercise in public is necessary, but underneath the chit-chat we share through our masks lies an awkward and hidden sense of danger. We’re set on edge in ways we’ve never before experienced, and there’s no ‘user-manual’ for us to turn to for guidance. Ah, except there is.
We have the New Testament as a guide. The early followers of Jesus lived with more stress than we can begin to imagine. Their worship of Jesus was shunned by others, illegal under Roman law. They lived under the threat of arrest and death for treason to the emperor. Yet they worshipped faithfully (though secretly) and their enduring witness of faith and trust in Jesus has served as a guide for believers for two millennia now. They did not always agree exactly how to follow Jesus (remember when James & John were caught arguing who would sit at Jesus’ right hand?), but they gave their lives and their resources for a common purpose; to embody and share the saving message of the Good Shepherd who died and rose to be with them.
Jesus still promises to meet us in ways we cannot imagine in the most difficult places of life – and death. And Jesus’ example of a shepherd is perhaps the best way we have to both understand the mission before us and how to share in it. It’s not really that hard to understand the image of Jesus as shepherd. But I think, in the end, it’s a truth that happens to you more than it is something you learn or figure out. As they say, Christianity is something better caught than taught.
In her book, Traveling Mercies, from a few years ago, the author Anne Lamott tells a story about a white man in her church named Ken who was suffering from AIDS and had lost his partner to the same disease.
A few weeks after the funeral, she says, “Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had occupied the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God’s crazy nephew, a saint made amazing by sheer grace alone. He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus in his heart and a church family to surround him.”
It is remarkable enough to imagine that a person so broken by death and pain could be anointed with such love that his suffering is overwhelmed by joy. But there is even more to the story.
Lamott goes on to talk about a woman in the church named Ranola, who, she says, “is large and beautiful, jovial and black and devout as can be.” Ranola once had “been a little standoffish toward Ken.” Her conservative religious upbringing taught her that folks like him were abominations. But Ken had been coming to church nearly every week for the last year and it was getting to Ranola. “So,” writes Lamott, on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen— only Ken remained seated … and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up — lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child when they sang. And just it pierced me.”
This is the life to which each of us is called— to follow the good shepherd, to be part of Christ’s flock. Sometimes to receive and sometimes to give—to know not only in our minds but in our hearts security in the face of danger, joy that elbows out sorrow, and love that overcomes fear. It means being led along paths we would not choose for ourselves, to be prodded by the shepherd who knows our needs better than we know our own, and to be blessed so thoroughly and so richly that we would not have even known how to ask for it.
God is still asking us to follow the shepherd; to trust in the one who laid down his life for others, and us, too.
Believing this gives me courage I don’t have on my own. The Good Shepherd stays with all of us, and does not depart. The Shepherd’s staying presence is what is holy, and what is asked of those who follow: to tend, to care, to offer hope and to wait alongside.
A shepherd’s character is more notable for its staying power than it’s might. Being a follower of the Good Shepherd requires an everyday courage that is asked of us, every day.
All of this might sound very, very hard for us to say ‘yes’ to follow, except for the fact that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, accompanies us every step of the way.
How can we say no?