May 7, 2017

“Someone to Watch Over You”

John 10:1-10


[This sermon is based on the book, “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C; WJK Press]


We are fortunate here at St. John’s (Hain’s) United Church of Christ for many reasons. Not the least of these reasons is when scripture chooses to use an arcane and agrarian image to make a point we have people who will understand it.


Sheep, sheep-folds, sheep-gates, and such things are a mystery to many of us modern folks. If someone happened to prepare a leg of lamb for Easter they may live under the illusion that that piece of meat dropped out of the sky wrapped in cellophane and on a foam tray.


They would not realize that sheep are perhaps the least self-sufficient creature in the bovine family, genus, Ovus. They drop their lambs in terrible weather and the little buggers are pretty much helpless. I say this because as a young man I helped a friend tend his small flock and sat up more than one night in the barn keeping vigil with a lamb at a heat lamp while it was sleeting outside.


Sheep were and still are totally dependent upon the shepherd who tends them with care and compassion. Shepherds were the providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of sheep. So close was the bond between shepherd and sheep that to this day Middle Eastern shepherds can divide flocks that have mingled at a well or during the night simply by calling their sheep, who know and follow their shepherd’s voice. Shepherds were inseparable from their flocks. The shepherd would lead the sheep to safe places to graze and make them lie down for several hours in a shady place. Then as night fell, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the protection of a sheepfold.


There were two kinds of sheepfolds or pens. One kind was a public sheepfold found in the cities and villages. It would be large enough to hold several flocks of sheep. This sheep pen would be in the care of a porter or doorkeeper, whose duty it was to guard the door to the sheep pen during the night and to admit the shepherds in the morning. The shepherds would call their sheep, each of whom knew his own shepherd’s voice, and would lead them out to pasture.



The Evangelist John captures Jesus’ use of a common sheep pen, as a description of the relationship between Jesus/God, and his people. It is interesting that Jesus does not describe himself as the gatekeeper, but rather as the gate itself. You and I who find ourselves so far away from what it was to shepherd in the time of Jesus might think something got lost in translation here in John’s Gospel. It turns out that is not the case. Jesus calls himself the gate, because that was part of what a shepherd was. In the second kind of sheep-folds, the one’s out in the countryside where there was no actual physical gate, the shepherd would lie himself down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd knew who or what came and went or who or what attempted to come and go and so could serve as protector of the sheep.




This is an image that people resonate with. There is someone who leads us whose very voice might tell us that they are for us, we are safe, and that we will be cared for. David, the shepherd boy David, knows of this comfort and safety. He is the one who carries a sling and a staff and watches over the flock. I would help my friend with his sheep, usually when he and his family were away for a day or two, or when that spring day of shearing, vaccinating, and worming, all came on one day. When I first started doing this the sheep weren’t buying it. What I mean is that they didn’t trust me. They wouldn’t come into the barn if I was in the barn. But over time, they came to know me and my voice and trusted me.


Jesus says that there will be people like that for us. A warm and fuzzy sermon on this text would conclude that we should listen to Jesus, ignore strangers, and stick together when we go out into the world. But this story is not so much about comfort as it is at least equally about challenge.


See, we are comfortable with recognizing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we are not so comfortable with actually following him…I mean following and sticking together like they do in the reading from Acts. We Americans don’t do so well with the idea that we need to be lead unless it is leadership that caters to our desires. We resist, in part, because we sometimes are just like sheep that are cautious and fearful, choosing to go our own way. And there are other times that, following risks our emotions and sense of self-sufficiency, so it is easier to go with our gut and not any expertise or guidance of a knowledgeable person. But risking our emotions and following a skilled and knowledgeable leader is necessary for being a follower, a disciple. A real leader is not someone who plays on your fears and self-interests, but someone who does what is best for the flock.


Remember with me that the shepherd does not work for the sheep. The shepherd may well care for the sheep and their protection is paramount to them, but the shepherd works for the one to whom the sheep belong.


The verb, ‘to shepherd,’ is used in a variety of situations but what it means essentially is to lead. And this leader, if they are a good leader, will not only look after the followers but will also challenge them and lead them in directions they, on their own, would not go. The leader, the shepherd, knows what is best for them is not always what is desired or what is easy.


What this following looks like is demonstrated here and there in scripture. Acts tells us to devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We gather not for bliss or for escape, but to grow in faith with others. Sticking together, especially when threatened, listening for the shepherd’s voice, and following when called.


In John 10:11 we read, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the contrast with other leaders is not between owner and thief, right or wrong entry and the true gate, but between owner and hired servant, between the one who runs from threats and the One who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is not done, however. The imagery shifts from good shepherd to the shepherd of multiple flocks (“I have sheep who do not belong to this fold”) and a new central metaphor: “There will be one flock, one shepherd.”


The trouble is that when you give the task of that one shepherd and gatekeeper to God, you lose control over who enters the fold. God says all are welcome. And you don’t get to decide who is worthy of your help either. There is no pre-existing condition that excludes…see it’s Jesus at the gate, not blocking entry, he’s letting everybody in and nobody out.


Eucharist is the church’s way of practicing these things. The table welcomes everyone as equals. Bread and wine remind us that there is enough for everyone. And it is