A Sermon about Gates and Shepherds and Sheep
This is a sermon preached to a group of Episcopal seminarians and their friends and family at the Candler School of Theology on the Feast of Timothy and Titus (Companions of Paul). The text is John 10:1-10
There is a reason why there are so many churches named The Church of the Good Shepherd, as well as The Church of Our Savior and The Church of the Redeemer, but not any that I know of named The Church of the Gate. It just doesn't have that great of a ring to it - the Church of the Gate. In addition to there not being much personality to a gate when compared to a redeemer, a savior, a shepherd or a saint, the image of gate also carries some rather negative baggage with it.
Imagine the logo of the Church of the Gate on your business card. Hmmmm. Perhaps it even has a big sign smack in the middle of it with "Keep Out!" scrawled across it - maybe in one of those nifty Gothic fonts to keep it churchy. Or maybe it could be the post-modern Church of the Gate with the more up to date keypad on a stick next to the fence, perhaps a stick in the shape of Jesus with the numbered buttons on his tunic, a la your typical suburban gated community. Doesn't really work, does it?
On the other hand, shepherds get a lot of play in the church world. Everyone loves the idea and image of the Good Shepherd, the one who goes after the lost sheep (which we imagine always to be ourselves) and brings it home lovingly draped across his neck. In practically every Christian denomination, the ordained leadership is called, either directly (as in Pastor Inkfest of Lake Woebegone fame) or indirectly, the pastor of a particular flock. Our Bishops carry shepherd's crooks, we provide pastoral care to our parishioners, we study pastoral theology in seminary.
But when we look around at what is happening in the church, we see that some pastors may call themselves pastors, but they function as gates. They set themselves up to say whether someone is in or out, they insist that the flock go through them in order to reach safe pasture. Some of these pastors decide who is called and who has access and that certain sheep are not welcome in church or as colleagues. I remember from my CPE days a heartbreaking situation involving a pastor who did not think he needed to come to visit a church member in the hospital because that member's family had not been active lately and was not caught up on its pledge. This church leader was not a shepherd but a gate. And he was a closed gate.
But here's the thing. Not every text in the Bible is all about us, and this one today from John is a great example of that. Jesus says, I am the gate. The gate that protects the flock. I am the shepherd that the gatekeeper has authorized to call the sheep and lead them both to pasture and to safety. I am the one who knows my sheep by name and calls to them and they know me and follow me. And just a few verses later, in case anyone didn't get it before, Jesus says plainly: I am the good shepherd.
Or to put it in Old Testament terms, The LORD, the great I AM, The Lord is my shepherd.
Not you. Not me.
Not you if you are ordained now, or will be ordained later, or have been commissioned by virtue of your baptism to minister to God's people. In this story, John is not talking about you or me as the shepherd or the gate.
But, you will protest, there's so much imagery about being a shepherd in the Bible, and we use it so much in the church, surely we are called to be shepherds? Yes, there is that wonderful imagery, and it can pertain to us, but our model in John comes later. After the resurrection, in that wonderful story of reconciliation where Jesus will say to Peter not once but three times to feed his sheep. That is why Bishops carry shepherd crooks and Pastor Inkfest is called Pastor Inkfest. That is why we study pastoral theology and practice pastoral care. Because Jesus said to Peter, watch, here's how we do reconciliation. You be a force for reconciliation. Know that you are forgiven yourself and if you love me, then you go out and "feed my sheep."
Feed MY sheep. See? It's still about Jesus. Our job is not to be Jesus, it's to point to Jesus. It's to remember that Jesus is the gate, not us; that Jesus is the way, not us; that Jesus is the one who offers life and salvation, not us.
Otherwise, we risk turning ourselves into the gate. Just as the Pharisees turned into gates and gatekeepers when they drove out of the synagogue the man born blind, whom Jesus had healed of his blindness, and the Pharisees had objected, in the story directly preceding this text.
Otherwise, we risk thinking that the community gathers around us, that it is our voice to which the sheep are supposed to tune in. You see the danger, I hope. Next thing you know we think we are the ones calling that sheep Mary Magdalene by name in the garden, calling that sheep Thomas by name in the locked room, calling that sheep Lazarus by name out of the tomb.
Well, what are we supposed to do then? What does Jesus have to say to us sheep, for that's what we are here in this text, sheep like everybody else. (You don't see any assistant shepherds in this story, after all. We may be set apart to do particular ministries, but priests or pastors or ministers of any sort, ordained or lay, are not set above the sheep.) So, in light of what Jesus is saying in this text today, that he is the gate, that he is the shepherd who calls his sheep by name, what are we supposed to do?
We're supposed to listen. We are supposed to listen for our shepherd to call our name. We're supposed to discern the voice of our shepherd from all those other voices out there, the voices of thieves and bandits who try to stand in for Jesus, from those who think themselves to be the gatekeepers or those who wish to take our lives for themselves. We're supposed to listen for and identify the voice of the shepherd for ourselves and to encourage our fellow sheep to hear that voice, too, and respond with us to his voice.
We're supposed to know and understand that Jesus gets to call whomever he wants to call - in a few verses he will go on to say that there are other sheep who do not belong to this fold but they are his sheep too and he will call to them, too. And we are not to get in the way of that.
We’re supposed to know that Jesus as gate is not about keeping sheep out but for protecting the sheep, for keeping them safe, for giving them a place of rest and refuge against those who wish them harm, who wish to take away their life and their lives, who wish to bind them into service to those things and those gods that do not give life. And we are supposed to reassure our fellow sheep that we are safe because Jesus is our gate, Jesus stands between us and all those things that would destroy us.
We're supposed to remember that the shepherd is always the one who brings life abundant and to resist the voices that bring a different message, messages of limitation and diminishment and fear and scarcity and status quo and death and a preoccupation with rules and gate keeping, like the Pharisees in the story about the man blind from birth, to whom Jesus is responding here in this text, those who have taken on the divine role for themselves.
And we are always to point to Jesus as the shepherd and the one who stands between us and death, that as it says in our prayer book only in him do we live in safety. To amplify our shepherd's voice, to underscore his message, that Jesus came to give all of us, everybody!, life abundant. To remember and live out that message in all that we do, and we say, as ministers of the Gospel in whatever place God calls us to exercise our baptismal or ordination vows.
Yes, we are called to serve, to be about reconciliation, to feed the sheep. Many of us are called to lead in some way and all of us are called to participate in being friends to the friendless, bringing hope to the hopeless and food to the hungry. But let us not take this text for our model for OUR pastoral leadership lest we begin to believe that it is our voice that matters, that we are somehow set above the sheep, and that we have been appointed to be the gate.
Jesus says, I AM.