05/11/14 Sermon (May 11, 2014) “The Shepherds Promise”

posted Jun 4, 2014, 12:38 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: John 10:1-10

[Jesus said to them:] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. 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.”

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Sermon: "The Shepherd’s Promise"             Rev. David Hawkins

Our scripture paints a familiar word picture, the image of Jesus as shepherd, tending his sheep, sheep who know his voice.

We are so used to this understanding of Jesus that we actually have a hard time picturing him in any other way. In our minds eye, we can hardly help but see him with his shepherds’ crook, calling each of us by name to follow him.

Over time, this metaphor of a shepherd has been stretched a bit to accommodate us preachers as well, hasn’t it? I mean, our very title, ‘Pastor’, itself has shepherding connotations. In fact, it comes from the Latin word for shepherd. We offer ‘pastoral’ care, we do ‘pastoral’ counseling, we are engaged in ‘pastoral’ ministry.

I confess that it is tempting for those of us who are called to ordained ministry to confuse our role in the church with Jesus’. It’s easy for us to forget that we are still just the sheep, along with everybody else. We have a job to do, but in the end, we are but a pale imitation of what a true Shepherd looks like.

Because as our scripture reminds us, that title belongs to Jesus. Jesus alone is the shepherd. Jesus alone is the one who lays down his own life for his flock. Jesus alone is the one who calls each of us by name to abundant life.

Today we find Jesus trying to explain, probably for the hundredth time, what all this really means. His audience is skeptical, to say the least. He is speaking to a group of religious leaders who are pretty much convinced that he is either a demon or a charleton.

You see, just a little while ago, in chapter 9, Jesus had healed a blind man. You may remember this story: The blind man had been brought to Jesus with the question, “Whose sin was it that caused this man’s blindness? Was it his, or was it his parents’?”

Of course, like it is for so many of these binary type questions, the answer Jesus gives is ‘neither’. It turns out that the man’s blindness has nothing to do with sin. It’s not about sin. And then Jesus spits in the dirt, makes some mud, and rubs it on the man’s eyelids, and he is able to see again.

Now, the problem with all this, of course, is that he did it on the Sabbath. And there are rules, after all. No working on the Sabbath, everybody knows that, and that includes miracles. And so, Jesus finds himself in trouble once again with religious authorities who are more interested in maintaining the rules than looking for God working in their midst

After all, if God was going to do something miraculous, doesn’t it make sense that it would happen according to schedule? Maybe they should put up a sign: “Miracles will be conducted during business hours, Monday-Friday, no exceptions. Violators will be stoned to death.”

It is un-possible that God would break the rules in order to cure a blind man. It just doesn’t make sense. Because God is a god of rules. And in a blinding display of unshakeable logic, they come to the only possible conclusion: Jesus must be the devil. Or maybe he’s crazy. Either way, he needs to be stopped.

It is against this background that we find Jesus trying to explain, yet once again, who he is. He has to be careful how he does it of course. He has to talk around the issue, to explain it using parables and riddles and metaphors and figures of speech that are not always too easy to understanding. Because, if he comes right out and says that he is the Messiah, then there really will be trouble. He’s got to be careful with the way he talks about all this

Jesus explains who he is in the most elliptical way possible. But if we put some thought into it, we can track along with him. If we try, we can figure what he’s talking about with his story about sheep and shepherds and gates and gatekeepers. Or at least, we think we can.

But the problem is, Jesus keeps throwing us changeups when we’re expecting fastballs. We can keep up with him when he talks about a shepherd. Right, that must be Jesus, got it. And then there’s the sheep, OK, that’s probably the people, right. And then, there’s the gatekeeper, who is…

Um, right, who is the gatekeeper? Yeah, that’s a harder one. Maybe we’ll come back to that one later. OK, the sheepfold, that must be...well, we’re not sure, actually. Jesus doesn’t say what the sheepfold is. Is it the Church? Religion in general? The Hebrew people? Believers? We’re not really sure who Jesus is talking about.

And all those bad shepherds who have gone before him, who are they? Are they the former prophets of Israel? Former kings, former leaders? Does he mean John the Baptist? That hardly makes sense -- it kind of seemed like Jesus liked him, I mean, being baptized by him and everything.

What about Moses, or Elijah? Are these the bandits that Jesus is talking about? Well, considering Jesus’ transfiguration experience on the mountaintop, he seems to be OK with them, too. So who exactly does Jesus mean when he talks about all the ones who came before him being thieves? Who does Jesus mean, when he talks about the stranger that calls to the sheep?

Maybe we can sympathize with Jesus’ audience just a little bit. Because if you stop to think about it, there are some parts of Jesus’ parable that really are hard to figure out. In fact, maybe there are parts of the story that we can’t figure out. Maybe Jesus deliberately left parts of his story blank in order to fire our imaginations, to poke us into thinking more deeply about who Jesus is, and who we are.  

We desperately want to fill the gaps in Jesus story. It’s in our nature. We don’t like mystery, we don’t like living in the tension on not knowing the answer. And so we look for an answers, any answer, and we are satisfied as long the answer is said loudly enough, and confidently enough.

Throughout the years, the Church has found a few different ways to finish Jesus’ story for him. For instance, for much of the Church’s history, the Church has considered itself to be the sheepfold, and the ordained clergy to be gatekeepers. It was the gatekeepers’ job to keep the wrong people out of the sheepfold. They determined which sheep belonged, and which didn’t.

And they weren’t shy about identifying those who were thieves and bandits, either. For much of our early history it was the Jews. After all, those were the ones who came before Jesus.  And not just the Jews. The Church has been quick to identify thieves and bandits throughout its history. And we have been quick to take action against them. To our shame, we have spilled blood for the sake of gatekeeping.

The church has done some terrible things with this parable. We have filled the gaps in Jesus’ story with the names and faces most convenient for us. We have closed the gate to those who look, or act, or talk differently than us. We have tortured, imprisoned, and burned people at the stake for theological reasons, and we have done all this, of course, in the name of Jesus Christ.

And this hasn’t changed all that much has it? I mean, we don’t burn people at the stake anymore, but I think we still, as the Church, think we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t let the wrong people into our communities. Not all that long ago, scripture was used to keep white and black communities separate. To prevent interracial marriages. To limit immigration. We have come to think that it’s our job, the Church’s job to keep the boundaries, to enforce the rules, to identify those deserving of grace, and those who are not. It’s our job to determine who is worthy to come before God.

The problem is, this assumption that we are the gatekeepers is exactly the point that Jesus is trying to address in our scripture today. Look at what was going on the story right before Jesus tells today’s parable. The religious leaders, the clergy, so to say, of their time and culture, had decided that because of a man’s blindness, he (or his family, it really made no difference), had sinned, and therefore he was not allowed to be part of the community, and was forced to sit on the roadside and beg for food. The Pharisees were acting as gatekeepers. They were deciding who was in, and who was out of the fold.

And when Jesus healed the blind man, they could not accept the blind man's explanation of what happened, and so they banished him again for his bad theology. You see, they simply could not fathom that God would work in ways that didn’t suit their traditions or their theology. Therefore, this man, who had been blind since birth, but who could now see, could never be accepted as part of their particular sheepfold. He would never be a welcomed member of the community. He simply did not fit their narrative.

And neither could Jesus. And as long as we are focused on the boundaries and the rules, our eyes will never be opened to the reality that God is standing before us. Like the Pharisees in today’s story, God himself might be standing at the Gate, and we simply cannot let him in.

You see, the problem with thinking that we can be the gatekeepers of who gets to be a part of the sheepfold is that we have either forgotten (or we completely ignore) the second part of what Jesus is telling the Pharisees. Jesus is not just the shepherd who brings the sheep in and out of the gate. Jesus IS the gate.

And so it’s a bit arrogant for us to think that we are the gatekeepers -- that we are somehow in charge of ‘keeping’ Jesus, that we get to decide when Jesus is going to swing open, and when Jesus is going to swing shut as though Jesus was under our control.

But the truth is, we don’t get to decide when Jesus opens and shuts. We don’t ‘keep’ Jesus. We can’t ‘keep’ Jesus. Jesus keeps us.

And that’s the Good News of today’s scripture.

Jesus is the shepherd. Not me. Not some other pastor. Not some televangelist. Jesus is the one who leads the sheep. Jesus is the one who knows our name, who calls us, who leads us in and out of the sheepfold.

And it’s not just us. He calls all the sheep. All of them. We have no more control over that than we have control of the Holy Spirit. The wind of God blows where it will, and we cannot build or keep a gate big or wide enough to keep it out or in.

And because Jesus is both shepherd and gate, no-one, not the church, not the pastor, not the elders, no-one can stand between you and Jesus Christ. If you hear him calling, no-one can tell you that you are not worthy, that you do not know enough, or are the right color, or dress the right way, or make enough money. If you hear Jesus calling you to come to him, then come. Come to the water. Come to the table. Come and know that you are loved. And may God help anyone who thinks they can stand in the way.

There is nothing that can stand between Jesus and those he calls by name. Despite our best intentions, our overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we are not gatekeepers. We are sheep, and members of his sheepfold. And that is the promise of today’s scripture.

We may be anxious about letting go of our role as gatekeepers. It’s hard to let go of what we think is such an important responsibility. It’s hard to imagine what kind of chaos will break out if we aren’t standing vigilant guard over the gate. We fear for the future of the Church, we fear for the integrity of the gospel, we fear for our salvation, and for the salvation of those whom we love.

We can’t help but experience this fear. It’s real, and it’s understandable.

But Jesus is flat telling us that not only can we unclench our fingers from the gate, we must. Jesus is the one in charge, not us. It’s not our responsibility, in fact, it never was our responsibility to decide who gets to go in and out of the gate. Jesus is the Shepherd. If we let go, he will protect us. Jesus is the gate, and anybody who enters by him will be saved.

And that includes us. We can trust Jesus to be both shepherd and the the gate of this congregation. We can trust him to keep us safe. Our job is to listen for his voice and follow him when he calls. We can let go of the gate. Because it was never ours to keep in the first place.

Thanks be to God. Amen.