I have a story to tell you. It’s a true story about sheep and goats and a shepherd. In the 1980s I lived in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land. The sight of shepherds and their sheep was common in our neighborhood. From the balcony of my second floor apartment, I could look down into a field where one young shepherd boy frequently took his sheep and goats. This boy had formed a caring and playful relationship with his flock, with one of the goats in particular. If you watched them for any length of time on any given day, this is what you’d see—a miniature soccer game going on between the boy and one of the goats. The boy would throw or kick the ball to the goat and the goat would butt it back to him. This would continue for quite a while. This shepherd had a connection with his flock—sometimes dutiful, sometimes stern, and sometimes playful.
We often have our romantic notions of those cute little cuddly soft sheep. I love sheepies myself. There is the ideal that’s so wonderful, but then we have the reality as well. Reality doesn’t always match the romantic. One of the places I lived in Upstate NY was next to a farm that had sheep and cows. My kids as well as others referred to it as the “stinky farm.” Get all these wonderful, cute animals together and it can get pretty aromatic.
In today’s gospel, Jesus relates to his followers in a number of ways, using a variety of images to make his point. He is the shepherd who comes in through the gate and then he himself is the gate. Now there’s something very interesting about the kind of gate Jesus is. I have always tended to think of Jesus’ statement, “I am the gate [or door]” in combination with the verse, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That sounds like a very exclusive proposition. And it is.
As one scholar explains, “A typical sheepfold out in the hills of Judea was simply piled-up rock in a circle with an entranceway. At night, the shepherd lay in that entranceway. Wolves or coyotes would have to attack him first. Strays couldn’t enter the fold without waking him” (Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus,Concordia University at Austin, Austin, Texas). These are the actions of the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.” He would act as the gate or door to keep out the predators as well as being the sheep’s way into the pen.
In Christ, we go from being outsiders in the family of God to insiders. Jesus is the way to be part of the company of sheep, for us, the fellowship of saints. This is how we’re “saved.” The word saved is loaded. Perhaps we think of the John 3:16 signs we see at sporting events or of a friend’s story of when they got “saved.” God’s salvation is about much more than just getting us to heaven. Salvation means, “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction…to save a suffering one (from perishing)…” (Bible Web App). It’s about way more than just heaven and the sweet bye and bye. God also cares about the nasty “now and now.” We experience God’s salvation now to a certain degree, but later we will experience it more fully.
Being inside the sheepfold is cozy and safe. Doesn’t this remind you of the disciples being in a locked room in fear when Jesus appeared to them that we heard about a few weeks ago? As much as they wanted to, the disciples couldn’t stay in the locked room forever. They eventually had to come out. We’re safe and sound in the sheepfold. The shepherd’s making sure no one breaks in. We have other sheep to cozy up to. It is good to be in the sheepfold, but we can’t stay there.
Sheep need to leave the pen to get what they need to grow and thrive. The pasture, their food and water are all outside. They have to go out to survive. We too as Christians cannot stay in the sheepfold forever. What is our sheepfold? It’s here in the gathering in this building. But we can’t stay here. We have to go out into the world. We have jobs, families, and responsibilities. Sometimes we need a boot to move us from our place of security, comfort, and perhaps complacency.
Outside is where we find food and pasture; however the outside can be a scary place. Going from inside to outside flies in the face of what we like to believe. We gather inside, together in church to be washed in the waters of baptism, to be nourished by Word and Sacrament. We’re filling up our tanks for the week ahead. Yes we are encouraged and our time together is a central part of our faith even as it was for the early church. But is this all our faith is about? Are we just supposed to come to church to learn and grow and go home to come again and repeat this over and over?
For us as Lutheran Christians, perhaps the growth and maturity in our Christian lives comes when we’re outside the safety and security of church. It comes as we listen to the shepherd’s voice in our experiences in the world, with those that aren’t part of our flock. It’s not easy in our world today, but it wasn’t easy in Jesus’ world either. That is the point, this life that we have in Christ is not easy.
The shepherd who knows and loves us so much calls us to relationship-with himself and others. Inside of God’s love and protection, we can be present to those outside of that relationship. We are compelled to not only feed ourselves, but to feed others and share God’s excessively lavish life with them so they too can experience the protection of the sheepfold.
All this lavishness is not ours alone, but is to be shared. Have you read or heard the news lately? Do you know that reactor #1 in Japan suffered a nuclear meltdown? (http://tinyurl.com/6hcb6a8) Do you know that other parts of the world have been devastated by natural disasters and that chaos seems to reign in other countries? And what about the destruction in our own land from tornadoes and floods? Are you aware that yesterday the Army Corp of Engineers opened floodgates in northern Louisiana that will flood hundreds of acres of farmland and destroy over 2,000 homes to save the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans? Don’t we feel helpless at times as we see the images on our TV screens night after night? How much more can New Orleans and so many other areas withstand? It’s nice that we have the protection of the shepherd and this wonderful abundant life, but what about everyone else? But it’s not just about us and our little group that gathers here in Petersburg, WV. We are part of the larger worldwide body of Christ, the body that’s called into action to reach out to those in need.
But what can we do? How can we share God’s loving abundance? We can give to Lutheran Disaster Response or the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or other agencies. We can pray for the people suffering in these disasters, and we can prayerfully support those aiding them. Some of God’s people will physically go and help these people rebuild their lives. That is what it looks like for us to be outsiders, those who dare to venture from the safety and security of the sheepfold to be challenged, to grow, to share this lavishly abundant life that exceeds usual expectations. This is how we can lead others into the sheepfold of God’s love in Christ.
When we go out into the world, we are not alone. Jesus is with us as the Good Shepherd is with his sheep. It is the Shepherd of the 23rd Psalm who leads and feeds us, who holds and protects us, who picks us up when we’ve stumbled and fallen and who heals our wounds. And we are in the company of the other sheep, of the other people of God, of the communion of saints.
Let us pray:
Lord, our hearts ache for those suffering from natural disasters and turbulence of every kind. Have mercy on those who are harmed or displaced by flood waters and tornadoes. Give them your strength to meet the days ahead, your peace, which surpasses all understanding, and renewed hope for restoration and rebuilding. Move in those who are able to give aid, that we may be your hands and heart on earth. Be with all who offer assistance; may your Spirit uphold them. As you have made water a sign of your kingdom, and of cleansing and rebirth, grant your people vision to see new life on the other side of disaster. Amen.