What's Tony Thinking

You are Both: A Sheep and A Shepherd


Thought you might enjoy my sermon preached last Sunday, via Zoom, at Bethel UCC in White Salmon, Washington. Edited for length.

The Hidden Gate
John 10: 1 – 10, May 3, 2020

By way of introduction let me say that my regular m.o. is to take my starting point from the biblical texts appointed for a particular Sunday. Those passages given to the church, and to preachers, by the Common Ecumenical Lectionary. I do this for several reasons. But one of them is that it prods preachers and congregations to deal with parts of the Bible which, left to our own devices, we might just as soon avoid.

And frankly this week’s reading from John might fall in that category for me. Among church geeks, this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Easter, is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That’s because the gospel reading is always some part of John 10, which is dominated by shepherd and sheep images and in which Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd.” For good measure Psalm 23 is always the Psalm for this Sunday, further emphasizing the whole shepherd thing.

I get it that this is one of the church’s most beloved images of Jesus. We’ve seen the portrayals of Jesus with a lamb gathered to his breast or an errant sheep astride his shoulders. But at least some of these depictions strike me as longer on romance than reality, often just a bit too sentimental for my tastes. So I didn’t particularly relish this Sunday’s text and having another go at such a familiar image.

Then I read the actual text, John 10: 1 – 10. And when I did I was surprised, “shocked” might not be too strong. For while it is true that later in chapter 10 Jesus speaks of himself as “the Good Shepherd,” that’s not what he says here. What he is saying may be hard to get, given a veritable cascade of words and images — sheep and shepherds, thieves and bandits, gates and gatekeepers.

But then, to clear things up, Jesus says, quite emphatically in verse 7, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” And if we missed it there two verses later he repeats it. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Jesus the Gate?

I don’t know about you, but I can think of a number of stained-glass depictions of Jesus the Good Shepherd. I can’t for the life of me recall a single one of Jesus the gate.

So, if we do for the moment let the gate image take center stage, we may not be all that thrilled. I hear “gate,” and can’t help but think “gated community,” which I’ve always thought is sort of an oxymoron. “Gate” means some get in and some don’t. And before you know it, we are off into who gets into heaven, which religion is the right one, and all that sort of thing.

There’s a time and place — and biblical passages — for that discussion, I’m not sure this is it. In fact, I’m pretty sure this isn’t about Jesus as the one gateway to heaven. What it is about is who Jesus and what it means to be a faithful follower of his and as a follower of his what kind of leadership — shepherding — you and I might offer to others and to the world in Christ’s name.

Listen again to the opening verse: “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.” Faithful shepherds pass through checkpoint Jesus.

From its earliest beginnings until today, one of the church’s big challenges has been sorting out true and false shepherds, distinguishing between those who are truly committed to caring for the flock and those who only want to fleece the flock. How do you sort out the real deal from the phony, the self-giving from the self-serving?

Though we may not be all that wild about thinking of ourselves as not-too-bright herd animals (even as we hope to develop “herd immunity,”) the truth is that human beings are vulnerable. People can be led astray. And when leaders betray the trust people place in them, the consequences are enormous.

The list is long, and we know it only too well. Clergy who used their power and position to assault children or engage in affairs with parishioners. Ministers who aren’t building God’s Kingdom on earth, but their own little, or in some cases, not-so-little fiefdoms. Political leaders who divide the flock and fan the flames of fear to gain power or to keep it. Business CEO’s who choose huge personal and short-term profit over long-term relationships and service.

So Jesus says, “I am the gate.” The shepherds who come through me, who gain their access to the flock through me, who follow me and serve me, are the real deal.
Okay, that helps.
But does it help enough?

Because, honestly, there are a lot of different interpretations of who Jesus is and what he has done. Not only that but different churches and denominations, at least often, boil it all down to a favorite or preferred one. We tend to get one fix on Jesus and leave it at that. For one he is the Divine Savior. For another The Very Best Human. For some, he is “the sacrifice for our sins,” for others a great teacher and moral example.

Which is why I chose the Billy Collins poem, “Introduction to Poetry” for our service today. Collins laments the way people want to torture a poem down to “what it really means,” to reduce it to a single meaning. He asks people to let a poem dazzle or disturb, provoke and evoke.

Could it be that we need to do something similar with Jesus? If we’ve got him pegged as a great teacher and moral example who we are to emulate, we might need to hear the parts about a Savior who came to rescue us when could not help ourselves. If we are sure he is the Divine Savior who has fore-knowledge of all that will befall him, we may need to ponder the abject man on the cross who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

With a gate, you aren’t ever able to see the whole thing. Standing outside a gate, you see that one side of it. You open the gate and go through, then you can see the inside, but the rest of it is hidden from you.
To me, that’s kind of the way it is with Jesus. We never see him all. We never get him all. We see part and part remains hidden from us. When we think we know him, he surprises us. So, at least one of the signs of a faithful shepherd, who enters through the Jesus gate, is humility.

Jesus remains surprising.
And, he’s not how you think religion is supposed to be.
What do I mean by that?

I was re-visiting a little book the other day called “Prayers for the Twelve Steps.” As you hear by that title, it builds bridges between Christian faith and recovery programs, like AA.

Here’s just a bit from that book: “It has been said that religious people are those who work very hard to please God in order to stay out of hell, and spiritual people are those who really want to know God better because they have already been there.”

There may be a bit of oversimplification there. And sometimes those who say, “I am spiritual not religious” can sound just a little smug.

But there’s a point here, a point which is crucial when we talk about Jesus as the gate.
And that is, it’s not mostly, or firstly, about our doing. It’s not about all the things we do or should do to show that we’re on God’s side or that God is on our side. It is about God’s doing, about God’s grace. It is about a God, who in Jesus, says, leave off your earnest efforts to get me on your side or show that you are on my side, because I have already taken your side and I shall never leave it. Trust this and live.

It is not about our search for God, but about God’s search for us. “Jesus” is the name of God’s search for us. He is the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost and the fallen, the broken and the bruised, those who see no way out.

Just two chapters earlier in the Gospel of John a woman whom we are told has been “caught in adultery,” — which could mean what think it means or it could only mean she smiled at a Roman soldier when she served him a bowl of soup — this woman was dragged before Jesus. A crowd of men stand ready to execute her for her failure, for her sin. Jesus pauses, sketches for a moment in the dust, then stands and says, “Well, yes, okay; whoever has no sin in their lives, who’s never failed, let go with the first stone.”

The sound is a muted one. Of stones falling to the earth. Thud. Plop. Until all the stones have been dropped and the crowd has dispersed, and it’s just Jesus and the woman. Helping her to her feet, he says to her, “Go, and sin no more.”

That’s where it starts you see.

Not with a man or woman, who comes to Jesus their life completely without blemish, wholly virtuous, having checked all the boxes and who therefore deserves to be in God’s presence, to enter through the gate. No, the gate opens out to her — a woman condemned — opened by the hand, the power of grace, reaching to her first.

This is our gate, our gateway to abundant life. Grace. God’s grace coming to us in Jesus.
This grace can never be reduced to a formula, or captured in a creed. It comes as a gift, a surprise. We cannot, as Billy Collins said of a poem’s “meaning,” pin it down. It moves freely. We do not control it.
But we can receive it. We can trust it.

And part of the way lost sheep receive and trust this grace is by a magical transformation that Jesus works in life after life. He transforms sheep into shepherds. Jesus finds those who deserted him, those who betrayed him. He walks, a stranger, alongside them on dusty roads. He prepares a dawn breakfast and says, “Come and eat.” Then he says, “Feed my sheep, care for my lambs.” Being gathered in his arms and brought home to safety is not the end game. The end game is to pass in and out through the gate that he is to shepherd the flocks of the vulnerable and lost in our own place, our own time.

A friend had a student in seminary. He asked, “How did you get here? What’s your story?” “You really want to know,” he asked. “Yes, I do.”

“Well, I was the teenager from hell. I gave my parents all kinds of problems. Started drinking in junior high school. Then drugs. To my astonishment, I got into college. But I was mess. Got kicked out after in my sophomore year.
But after a couple years I found my way into AA. And my girlfriend wanted us to go to church. I wasn’t sure, but okay. We went to this little Congregational Church. One day the pastor says to me, “I think you’d be good with the youth.” I wanted to say, “Are you crazy?” Umm, not sure about that Pastor.” But she kept at me. So I gave it try. Worked out, amazingly, pretty well. I began to think that maybe God was calling me to the ministry.
We went home, back east, to visit my folks. I said, “I know you’re not going to believe this, but I think I have been called to the ministry.”

My mother starts to cry. I said, “What? I mean know this is kind of a surprise. But crying, why are you crying?”
Well, she said, you don’t know this, but we had trouble getting pregnant. And I’d been to church and heard this story about Hannah and how she promised God that if she got pregnant, she would give her child to God, said he would become a priest or whatever. So I did that.
 “You did what?” said Sam.
“Well, how was I to know it would work? I mean I thought it was a Baptist thing.”
So, that said Sam, that’s how I got here. A lost sheep. Now a shepherd-in-training. God is amazing.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and so — by the grace of God — are you.

Dear friends, it’s a difficult time now. Some days we feel like lost sheep ourselves, bewildered, overwhelmed, altogether stupid. Still, Grace comes. Still, Jesus comes. Finding us, bringing us to safety. And when he does we hear anew the call, the word, “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.


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