In addition to Mother’s Day, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. I thought I’d try to work Mother’s Day into the sermon. About all I came up with is that I’m sure my mom would’ve agreed with Peter – “That boy of mine sure can be like a straying sheep. I hope the Good Shepherd gets ahold of him before he drives me crazy.” I don’t know why she’d say something like that – I did go to seminary, after all. Anyway, in today’s gospel, Jesus is not a shepherd. He’s a gate. Today should be the Good Gate Sunday. But a gate doesn’t relate as warmly to us as a good shepherd does.
Regardless, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. His picture was on our Sunday school room wall to prove it. Artists paint a smiling, Caucasian-style Jesus with a clean, fluffy lamb across his shoulders. It’s a sweet, comforting image. But familiarity can obscure reality. Do you spend much time around sheep or shepherds? Probably not. Sheep were important in the Biblical world, for milk, wool, food, and sacrifices. A big flock signified wealth. If you are thinking about buying some, first check the official Australian Guide to Sheep Rearing – disadvantages outweigh advantages, eight to three. Sheep are fragile, near-sighted, prone to parasites, too dumb to know when to flee a predator, and if you ever walk into a sheep pen, for goodness sakes, watch your step. They are more than models for pastoral paintings and props for Jesus’ shoulders.
When Jesus heals a blind man, he says, “I am the sheep’s gate.” The Pharisees, who note this, become incensed that Jesus heals the guy – who must be a sinner. He is blind, and that’s a sign God punishes him for something. Not so – Jesus infers that some who think they see, are actually blind and don’t know it. The blind man has said virtually the same to the Pharisees. So being upstaged, they withdraw his Temple membership. “Are you talking about us, Jesus?” “Duh! If you Pharisees are so smart, then why can’t you see?” Boom! And Jesus says “I am the gate. You’re not.” Case closed.
A sheep pen had an opening, but no door. At night with the sheep safely in, a shepherd lies in the opening and acts as a gate to keep out predators and thieves. But he’s also the Shepherd of God’s flock. The image of the Lord as Shepherd is quite common in scripture. It’s beautiful, comforting and protecting. Jesus is the Shepherd who admits all who want in. That doesn’t sit well with religious gatekeepers who enforce rules only the elite could keep.
Those who will enter God’s realm now come through Jesus, who knows our names, how we really are – and loves us anyway. The law of love is what calls us and acts like a GPS to help us find our way home to God. Are there other ways? Probably – but this is the way we know and experience life in God’s realm. A friend tells me he believes Jesus knows all about him. He grew up in a harsh, fundamentalist Christian tradition. He was told, “God rejects kids like you.” He believed it. He feared God. He never was told of the shepherd who gathers the strays and outcasts to bring home. He still says, “I’m terrified that Jesus would know my sin, see my heart and thoughts, and watch what I do.” That’s sad – tells me bandits and thieves still raid Jesus’ flock. I think my friend is farther down the spiritual path, though, than a lot of churchy folks. He knows he’s a sinner. I hope he’ll one day trust the other part – that Jesus knows him and laid down his life for everyone – none excluded, especially him. Only in owning our brokenness and weakness, admitting our sin and failure are we ready to hear a loving voice. That’s the only hope any of us have. “You are a sheep of my fold, a lamb of my flock, a sinner of my redeeming.” That would be us.
The shepherd leads us out of our safe places, like our comfort zones, our church pews, or thinking we’re gatekeepers of the past, the church or anything but ourselves. We’ve begun some conversations about how to be church in a changing culture. Who are we? What do we do well? What do we need to change to do even better? You’ll have opportunities to contribute your important insights. To stand still or think we have arrived is deadly. Do you know we have scores of people who come into this building five days a week? We say we want to reach more people. I often watch them come and go. Many live within three miles of here. They drop their kids off and come back for them – we hope. Many of these families are not part of a faith community. Could we create ways to welcome and invite them into the fold of the gatekeeper and Shepherd? I pray that God will set someone’s heart afire with a passion for these families and children – shepherd leaders who’ll help us figure out how to get to know them, learn their needs and desires – help gather them into the Great Shepherd’s life. Are we committing our resources to preserving the past, or creating a better future? I do know if we don’t try, we’ll fail. I don’t think any of us want that. We need more shepherds to apply for work around here, you who’ll follow the Good Shepherd to new pastures, and bring new sheep back home to this sheep pen. As far as I can tell, we still have a little room left in our pews to seat them. And we’ve even got sheep who are members here, who evidently have forgotten how to get here. Anyone up for working on that one? Still have a little room for them to come back.
Admittedly, all these images are confusing – sheep, sheepfold, shepherd, gate, thieves, gatekeepers. Ours is not so confusing. We follow Jesus. We are sheep who join Jesus in shepherding. If you ever get confused, remember an ending to a prayer Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Think about that – seriously. Because we are, we follow him to new pastures, to share his love and abundant life with any ready to receive it. That’s our job. I hope we not only believe – we’re ready to do something about it.