John’s gospel is a bit of a maverick compared to the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew. The synoptic (synoptic from the Greek word meaning ‘viewing together’), are similar in style and narrate mostly Jesus’ public teaching and ministry. The gospel called “according to John” attempts to explain the mystery of Jesus. John uses real events, but uses elements in them, like bread, water, shepherds, and gates, in symbolic and beautiful ways, intended to help us to trust and believe in the personhood of Jesus and that, at the same time, Jesus and God are one. We are expected to look beyond the sign, or rather to follow the sign, the sheep , shepherd or water turned to wine, to understand its purpose.
Today’s lovely Gospel of the good shepherd is so beloved and well known to us. If you read it slowly you might find, as I did, that it contains characters and situations that we can relate to and learn from; sheep, shepherds, pastures, farmers and gate keepers, givers of comfort mercy, safety and guidance. The only thing missing from this bucolic setting is the sheep dog. I imagine they might have had sheep-herding dogs in Jesus’ time; a good dog would fit right in with this story. If you’ve been lucky enough to get to know a sheep herding dog, picture one now. That intelligent, questioning look, loyal and obedient, head tilted to the side, yearning for love and understanding. Let’s be sheep dogs today and listen at the feet of our head shepherd, Jesus.
There are many teaching stories in John’s gospel. In these stories we are not given all the details, every element is not identified, and we are expected to come to an understanding, in our own day. Perhaps this is why scripture, though ancient in origin, is a living document, as relevant and instructive today as it was when it was written.
Jesus is speaking to the disciples, or perhaps to a group of followers, or maybe just some curious types. They are confused, and understandably so; this amazing idea of the personhood and Godhood of Jesus is a complex one to say the least.
Jesus is a patient teacher. His words are simple, open and honest. He speaks in the present tense; about a subject these people would have familiar with. In Jesus day sheepherding was a common but lowly occupation, usually designated to the youngest boy in the household. (I’m happy to say there are many female sheep herders these days. One of my favorite farms, not far from here in Shaftesbury Vermont is called “Wing and A Prayer Farm”. Farmer Tam and her children and community raise fiber-specific sheep.)
Jesus says “Very truly I tell you (you can trust me),” he says, the gatekeeper (who manages several shepherds’ flocks at night) opens the gate to let the shepherd in, and the shepherd comes in through the gate, the honest way, not like the sneaky, dishonest ones who climb over the fence or slither under it. Jesus calls them thieves and bandits. Jesus is referring here not to Satan or some evil force in the world but to the self-serving leaders of the day. The shepherd’s voice is recognized by their sheep, and they lead the sheep out. I notice that the Shepherd is out in front, not shushing the sheep out from behind!
Let’s put ourselves in the character of the sheep for a moment. You may know that I am somewhat of a wool and fiber-freak. I can pretty much always be seen with yarn and needles, and I’ve been begging my family to let me have a small flock of backyard sheep for years….no luck! Sheep, like us, have many redeeming qualities and a few that are not so spectacular. Besides being fluffy and adorable, they are gentle and non-aggressive, they neither bark nor bite. In fact, their main defense mechanism is flocking together. As our flock used to say after we became the merged church of James and Andrew, “We are better together, we are stronger together”. Sheep are loyal and become steadfast, trusting followers of the one with the voice they recognize, the one who knows them, the one they have developed a relationship with. This kind of trust does require relationship building, to develop an imprint on the heart, like an infant to their parents’ voices. Relationship building requires time, closeness, knowledge and understanding.
Sheep have also been given the bad rap of not being very deep thinkers. Here’s a little story which illustrates this and reminds us that we are not so very far superior to the lowly sheep. A farmer (or maybe it was a social scientist) experimented by tying a rope across the barn door a few feet off the ground. When the sheep were herded out of the barn, they jumped gaily over the rope. When the rope was removed, the remaining sheep continued to jump as they exited the barn. Think about it….I know that I can obsessively jump over ropes in my mind, long after the barrier is removed, or insist on doing something because “I’ve always done it that way”. I’ve also been a loyal follower and kept quiet and followed the crowd even when I knew there was a better, fairer, or more just path to take. All we like sheep.
The shepherd and the sheep are part of a community where trust is the core. In this chaotic noisy and often dangerous world, it is hard to know who to trust, which voices to follow. There are many voices in this noisy world - societal expectations, the enticing call of consumerism, peer pressure and our own selfish desires.
Jesus’ voice calls us in a different direction than these worldly voices. He speaks to us though scripture, thru art and music, through nature, and sometimes through a kind of knowing we cannot explain, but we are sure when it comes. It’s the voice that tells us to come in through the gate, where there is abundant life for everyone.
This little teaching story which begins the 10th chapter of John’s gospel includes characters, places, situations, and feelings we can relate to. This week, let’s try to recognize these characters in ourselves and in others:
And finally, remember the gate? The gate swings inward and outward. It swings in today, so that we can become more familiar with the voice of Jesus, so that we can be fed at the table with bread and wine and anointed by holy oil, nourished like the sheep in green pasture. It swings out so that we can go back into the world, well-fed, surrounded by goodness and mercy to be the good shepherds the world so desperately needs.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
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