So which is it? This is good shepherd Sunday, everyone who has been to church or has preached in a church for any appreciable length of time ought to know that the fourth Sunday in Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday and they brace themselves for explanations of pastoral scenes in ancient Palestine and of the role of the shepherd and the role of the hired hand and the nature of the sheep, I myself have preached a few of them.
Frankly, we live in a world too removed, in the main, from the prospect and imagery and physical understanding of the demands of a shepherd’s life. Oddly enough, I used to raise sheep but I understand that not many of you have and so, while I have spoken from a position of actual knowledge on the topic on this very Sunday in the past, I am a little uneasy about it.
It doesn’t translate well to people who have never done it, it is not something that you can really appreciate without doing it, there is a smell to it, lanolin on your hands and clothing from every single time you touch, shove or swat a sheep that I cannot explain to you accurately and not for lack of rhetorical power on my part.
There is the bleating of sheep which many of us can imagine, the baaa sound has graced movies and television shows but until you are surrounded by about two hundred sheep, all clamoring for the buckets of grain you are carrying, the sound you imagine cannot compare to the reality you would experience if you actually engaged in the activity and so explaining it really doesn’t communicate what you are trying to communicate.
It is like my father, trying to explain to me, in great and patient detail, how to be a careful and thoughtful chainsaw user, showing me proper grip and describing the ways in which the saw was designed to be safe for me to use.
I am a very safe chainsaw user. Not because of the lessons offered by my dad. Outside of the actual use of a chainsaw, the lessons are just abstractions, they are words that have some relation to the activity but do not communicate the actual activity itself.
Cutting my leg with a chainsaw did that.
So unless you would all like to accompany me to a sheep farm and spend several days getting to know what it is to be a shepherd, it might be better if we were to leave that image alone for a while. It is a shame, shepherds have a rich heritage but in order to move forward, some things must simply be dropped.
But I have a gate. Actually I have four gates, in my yard; we are a gate-rich household. I’m actually removing one, building another new one and rebuilding a third. Gates are serious business. Many of you have a gate as well, it separates your back yard from the street, it is often on the side yard, that shadowy place where you keep your trash cans, the gate used only when you need to take leaves or yard waste to the green can in front of your house.
Gates are no longer what they once were.
Now we get to the back yard by going through the house. Spider webs cover the gates.
The sheepfold is not your home.
Imagine a yard, just picture your own back yard for a minute, we’ll keep the images simple and familiar.
If you had sheep there, and no fence, then there would be nothing to keep the sheep in, to keep the number of sheep we owned the same over time, none would just leave us, they would remain ours. More importantly anyone could come in, sneaky in, just stroll up and swipe what they wanted. If you put up a gate but no fence, well, you see the flaw in that plan I hope.
You build the fence for security; the world is an uncertain place. You put up a gate so that you, or someone you trust, can still have access to the backyard, the sheepfold in this morning’s reading. After all, lamb chops are delicious and sometimes you will need to eat one of those little lambs.
But you need to be able to come and go, sheep eat a lot and one yard is never ever going to be enough.
They need to come and go and the one who takes care of that is the shepherd.
The shepherd comes to the gate and calls the sheep and they follow him out into green pastures where they live under his protection and care. The shepherd comes to the gate, he is the trusted one, the one who is expected and so the gatekeeper knows him, the sheep know him and anyone who seeks to take the sheep by any other means is a thief, a bandit who seeks not the welfare of the sheep, but only their destruction.
I cannot avoid one of the more obvious metaphors of Good Shepherd Sunday, you are all still the sheep. God’s will is for your nurture, your protection, the sheepfold is the great and glorious creation given to us, suited to us, green and lush with possibilities. If we stayed in the sheepfold, however, we would starve. We were created too bold, too inquisitive to remain penned in. Some call it free will but I call it God’s curiosity, God’s loving, graceful curiosity as to what we might become and so we are given this lovely pasture in which to dwell but must be let out now and again to learn and to grow, to feed on new ideas and new experiences, to live fully, to thrive and to learn how to be who we are and while we can be let out of our pen, our sheepfold by anyone, those who do not enter by the gate are thieves and bandits.
Into this world of danger and pitfalls and the siren call of sin and death the thief simply abandons us, leaving us to wander down pathways that lead to death and not to life, pathways that only ask us if we can and never if we should, that appeal to our pride and our fear.
The better way out of the sheepfold, as pleasant and fair as it is, in fact the only real way out of the sheepfold, our infancy as a species, is to go through the gate, to walk through on our own, to be who we are called to be.
Called by the shepherd, whose voice we know.
But in this picture; in this lovely, foreign pastoral picture, Jesus is the gate through whom the shepherd leads us into safe pastures, He is the way the truth and the life, so to speak. Unless we come through Him we are being stolen from God. So who is the shepherd?
Look in the mirror. It is you and it is me and it is the only way.
The only thing that remains consistent in this morning’s gospel is that we are the sheep. Jesus is the gate in the beginning but then calls himself the good shepherd and we are supposed to just let that go, as if it meant the same thing in the beginning of the reading as it does in the end.
But the shepherd who leads us out into green pastures leads us through Christ, through the living word spoken aloud, given witness by our lives and our hands and the love we learn from Him who frees us.
We are called to lead them, whoever they are, to Christ, through Christ to the knowledge that while we may be shepherds, their salvation is not in us but in Him, through Him who laid down his life for them, for us and who will never abandon us to sin and death, not ever, not for anything.
I like Jesus as the gate much better than as Jesus as the good shepherd. I don’t mind being a sheep but I rebel against making it all about letting ourselves off the hook, about just pointing to Jesus and then going back to our crossword puzzles or Sudoku. I do however understand that Gate Sunday doesn’t have the same ring to it and will never catch on.
Jesus may be the good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep, but we too must be shepherds whether the sheep are five or seventy-five because there are still thieves and bandits, there are still temptations and sin and death and for the lack of the knowledge of Christ the world has lurched and stumbled toward oblivion.
For the lack of shepherds who can speak the words of salvation so that the sheep will hear their voice, recognize them, and follow them into the pastures of their God, prepared for them, set aside for their growth, for the lack of any such as these. And do not depend upon those of us who wear a collar, the message is bigger than that, bigger than the witness of one voice, bigger than the reach of just the clergy.
It needs a chorus, a heavenly chorus of voices, raised together, not just singing his praises but telling the story, the old, old story to the sheep here in God’s sheepfold.
Otherwise the green pastures, the still waters, the table prepared for us will go undiscovered, untouched, the mean uneaten and the sheep in the fold will surely perish.
For want of a shepherd, and not even a particularly good one, just a regular one, like me, like you.