The Rev. Melanie McCarley
It’s not a compliment to be called a sheep. Think about it. Sheep are neither commanding, nor are they brave. Certainly, they are not known either for their intelligence or their skill. Sheep, by the nature, are easily led. They wander, get stuck in thickets, and occasionally they get lost. And, let’s face it, they smell. Sheep don’t have a great many protective instincts. Faced with a wolf, odds are good that sheep is going to be dinner. One has to wonder why we Christians are so fond of the image. Wouldn’t we rather claim a falcon, lion or panther as our mascot—instead of the lowly sheep? Consider mascots chosen to represent their respective schools. Have you ever seen a sheep as a school mascot? Take a moment and imagine a glee club bleating out the school’s victory cry with pride and enthusiasm. It’s an amusing picture—but not particularly inspiring—especially if you are facing off against the Highland Warriors. Yet, over and over, from King David (who certainly was a mighty warrior) to our Savior, Jesus, we are told that we are the sheep.
Of course, what makes any of this Good News is that Jesus is our Good Shepherd (otherwise, we wouldn’t stand much of a chance, if any, would we?). In the Gospel lesson for today Jesus describes this shepherd saying: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” And he goes on to say: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
This is a confusing passage. Is Jesus telling us he is the shepherd or is he the gate? And so, a brief lesson in sheep husbandry is in order. During the time of Jesus, as evening approached, the shepherds would herd their sheep into pens to protect them at night when the wolves and mountain lions were hunting their prey. These pens were made of large walls, about 5 feet high and constructed out of rock. On top of the four stone walls the shepherds would place briars or prickly branches—an ancient version of our modern-day barbed wire. Now, about the door. What was it made of? Was it constructed out of wood? Was it a pile of stones that could be moved as dawn broke in the morning? Was it made from hides or skin or sticks woven together? Well, here’s the answer. Strange though it may seem, there was no door. That’s right, this carefully constructed pen, made of stone, topped with branches of briar had no door. What it had was the shepherd. The shepherd himself was the door. At night the shepherd would sleep in front of the opening. If a predator was coming, it would have to go through the shepherd in order to get to the sheep. So, in today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus is telling us that he is both the Good Shepherd, as well as the gate. Jesus provides the door—the gate to a life of fullness and peace. Think of it this way—Jesus is the door through which we enter into a place of refuge and peace and he is the door through which we go out into the world in which we live, move and have our being. And after having moved through the door into the world, we follow where his voice leads.
During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we are stalked not by a wolf or cougar that we can see, but by a virus we cannot see; at a time when staying behind the doors of our houses offers us some protection, but not certain protection, we (perhaps at this time, more than others) can appreciate the image of our Shepherd as a living Gate, who assures us of his love, power and his protection—whatever may come, whether that be life or death, unemployment, a loss of income, a degree or a dream deferred. At a time when our own helplessness stands out for us to see with startling clarity, we are assured there is refuge and hope found in our Savior. What’s more, there is life.
And about that life that has been promised us; the Gospel lesson today tells us that this life is abundant. The promise Jesus offers is not simply the chance to persist or endure to the end with grim determination, but to thrive and flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment: To know and be known, to accept and be accepted.
So, think of it this way. Today’s passage isn’t simply about staying alive—it’s about living in the presence of the Good Shepherd. It’s about what it means to live abundantly. Here’s what we learn; no matter how much we might want to convince ourselves that we are free-range sheep, the truth is that we live our best life, our fullest life, when we follow our Good Shepherd.
I’d like to close this morning with Bland Tucker’s paraphrase of Psalm twenty-three.
The Lord my God my shepherd is; how could I want or need?
In pastures green, by streams serene, he safely doth me lead.
To wholeness he restores my soul and doth in mercy bless,
And helps me take for his Name’s sake the paths of righteousness.
Yea even when I must pass through the valley of death’s shade,
I will not fear, for thou art here, to comfort and to aid.
Thou hast in grace my table spread secure in all alarms,
And filled my cup, and borne me up in everlasting arms.
Then surely I can trust thy love for all the days to come,
That I may tell thy praise, and dwell for ever in thy home.
In the name of Jesus, our great Good Shepherd. Alleluia. Amen.