Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
The gatekeeper, the Good Shepherd leads the sheep out. He calls them by name, they recognize his voice and they follow him.
That small detail – the fact that the shepherd leads them out – has escaped me all these years. Images of shepherd Sunday took me to green pastures and still waters, to verdant hills or sheep grazing, stationary in a field. I’ve skipped over the breached fences and gates, instead picturing my 1970s decoupaged Jesus, the one I found while cleaning out a Sunday school classroom, the one who looks for all the world like a Gibb brother with a lamb wrapped around his shoulders. No movement, just static Shepherd Jesus and little sheep. I have conflated the gate and the gatekeeper Good Shepherd with the lost sheep story, and in that conflation I missed the fact that Jesus leads the sheep out.
All the gated communities with which I am familiar are about keeping people safely inside, not about equipping them to go out into the wider world. Communities with gates control who gets to enter and who doesn’t. The point is to be safe on the inside with those who’ve been properly vetted – not gathering to be sent out into the unknown, right?
I have stopped going to a certain gathering because it takes place inside a large, gated community. Before I go to this meeting I must let one of those on the inside know I am coming and they, in turn, have to make sure my name is on the list at the main gate. There are many entrances reserved for those who have a pass. I learned the hard way that GPS is unaware of these restrictions, angering one of the pass-holders when I had to back up and do a U-turn (or storm the gate). Sometimes that same GPS, wanting to direct me to the shortest route, will inadvertently take me out a gate and then back to another gate, one that requires the pass, and then I am forced to go back to the astounded gatekeeper and go through the entire process again. I have decided that the community within is not worth the hassle to access it, so I have stopped going. I think the church has sometimes been this kind of gated community, too: an insular, fearful, exclusive, you-need-a-pass-to-get-in kind of community.
But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads his flock out. Hmm. Maybe that will preach. Maybe Jesus’ gated community is not one that huddles together inside the fence to stay safe at all costs, but instead one that is gathered together to be nurtured in order to follow the Shepherd out. Maybe Jesus lets us in the gate so that we can go out and lead others back. There is a fluidity to this text from John. There is movement. Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus’ flock doesn’t hunker down in one place. They are on the move.
I came across a blogger who raises sheep. She wrote:
“With our new fencing done, and Holden (our Pyr) there for protection, I started letting the sheep out into the big pasture again about a month ago. However, it’s a bit more involved than just ‘letting them out.’ Our big pasture with all that good grass is across the creek that runs through the middle of our farm. The sheep don’t like to go out there too early in the morning or by themselves; after all, coyotes may be out there. (And we’ve been hearing them again the past few nights.) So letting them out means calling and calling the sheep until one of them takes the lead and starts heading out from their small, safe paddock next to the barn. They all then follow the leader.”
Seems Jesus knew something about sheep. They are fearful, not keen on change, in need of protection and a leader. They must be called repeatedly, assured it is safe to move. Thankfully, that is exactly what Jesus provides. The beauty and abundance of the pasture is available to us and to whoever hears Jesus’ voice, but we must be willing to trust the leader and follow if we are ever to experience it. The temptation for us in the church is to make Jesus a wall instead of a gate, a barrier instead of a place that offers access, a stern guard instead of the Good Shepherd. We do that when we act out of fear rather than trusting the One who knows us, calls us by name and leads us out.
I am writing this lectionary reflection in one of the lovely rooms in Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. I am attending the Associated Church Press Conference and on the first day of the conference I arrived early. I had work to do and so I tentatively approached the receptionist and apologetically asked, “I have a meeting here later today, is it OK if I just find a place to sit and work for a while?” The receptionist looked at me with some curiosity and handed me a small slip of paper with the Wi-Fi code, “Of course,” she said. Well, just like Staples, that was easy! I was surprised, frankly. I wandered around the building and found a place to sit (or sprawl really… I’d had a really early flight). As I lounged on the sofa I saw all kinds of people coming and going, in and out. There was a lovely coffee machine, and every once and a while someone would avail themselves of it. There were groups meeting in rooms, some men and women carrying their earthly possessions in tattered bags getting coffee, resting or reading and other people dressed in business attire walking through the lobby.
As I explored the church further I discovered the sanctuary open, people coming and going without any barriers to that movement. Later buses of kids came in for a tutoring program and a meal. The revolving doors were rarely still. Coming and going, going and coming, no pass needed, no list to be checked, no sense that some were insiders and some were outsiders and you better know which you were. The church was providing pasture for many and that was, at least in part, because there was so much movement in and out.
I know Fourth Presbyterian Church has a long history of this kind of hospitality. I also know many churches are like another one I remember with a lovely fenced playground and a padlocked gate with a sign that read: “No Trespassing.” What makes the difference? I suspect it has a lot to do with trust. Do we trust that the Good Shepherd will nurture, provide, lead and guide? Is the protection and call of Jesus the gate who makes a way enough to get us to leave our little huddles of like-mindedness and fear? Or will we hunker down and miss out on the pastures Jesus longs to give us all?
Right now in our world of much suspicion and anxiety, Jesus’ flock needs to hear their names and follow him out so that others will know the way to the gate, the gate of heaven, the gate and gatekeeper who leads to eternal and abundant life: pasture.
- What gates do you experience on a regular basis? Gated communities? Airport gates? Gates on a playground? What are they for? To keep people out? Safe? To make a boundary or a barrier? How do they help or hinder the image of Jesus as the gate?
- “Gatekeeping” is defined as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” Does the church participate in this kind of gatekeeping? When have you witnesses or experienced “gatekeeping” and what, if anything did you do about it?
- Do a word study of “gate” and note where else you find it in Scripture. What other kinds of gates do you find? Do these references inform your understanding of this text from John?
- How do we recognize Jesus’ voice? What do we hear him saying?
- Are you part of any communities that are fluid – with changing members, comings and goings? Why do our communities get so “fixed” so quickly? Is there an argument to be made for communities that remain the same over time? Is there an argument against?
- Have you ever been around a flock of sheep? If not, do a quick Google search and see what you learn or ask someone who has experience with real, live sheep. What do you discover and how does it inform your understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?
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