April 30, 2023
The Rev. Dr. John A. Terry, Interim Pastor
Today’s gospel lesson is from John 10:1-10. When Jesus taught this lesson, he used words and images those in the first century would understand. There are sheep and a shepherd; there is the voice of the shepherd; there is the sheepfold and the gate. When Jesus said he is the good shepherd it means that we are the sheep.
This is not a compliment. It is an admission that we are really dumb and helpless, not an easy admission in a society of people who claim they are self-made and who believe we can become self-sufficient.
Sheep are no real help to themselves. They do not recognize danger. They do not run away from it. They do not know how to hide. They are just about the dumbest mammals in the whole animal kingdom. They are creatures of habit including a lot of bad habits. They will graze the same hills until it becomes a desert waste.
They are creatures of bad hygiene. They will pollute their own ground until it is run over with disease and parasite. To their own ill health, they will live in their own filth. They grow heavy coats. If they are not shorn of their fleece it will continue growing and become weighed down with mud, manure, burrs and debris. When they lie down, they may accidentally roll over on their backs. Once on their backs they cannot right themselves unless a shepherd comes and puts them back on their feet.
That means that when it comes to making the really critical decisions in life, Jesus was saying that we can be really dumb and easily led astray and get in troubles with no capacity to get ourselves out. We might not want to admit this, but this often describes the human condition. In this lesson we first hear the voice of Jesus, then commentary by the Gospel writer, then again, the voice of Jesus.
(Jesus said,) 1 “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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a 2
stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
(The narrator observed) 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
There are not many sermons we hear in a lifetime that are really memorable. If you asked me on Monday the title of the sermon from the day before, most of the time I would have to look it up. But there is one sermon I remember from over five decades ago. In the college I attended there was a time called “Religious Emphasis Week.”
One year I became involved in the selection of the speaker. I drove from my college in northwest Ohio to Detroit, Michigan to visit the Rev. Dr. Henry Hitt Crain, a grand old retired Methodist preacher very prominent in his day. I was to ask if he would consider coming to my college to preach once a day for five straight days. He accepted.
Two things I remember about that week. One is that there were a surprising number of college students who voluntarily filed into the auditorium to hear him. The other is the sermon he preached on these words of Jesus. He set it up by telling us that he was going to summarize in one sentence the whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry. After a lengthy introduction he said that the sentence that summarizes Jesus’ ministry is: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” I have always remembered that.
In a world of joyless religion, in a world where religion is so often the motivation for violence, in a world where religion makes headlines for harming innocent people instead of working for justice, this passage stands out. Jesus came that we – the sheep of his flock – might have life and have it abundantly.
This does not just mean material abundance. It is an abundance for the sheep, an abundance of basic food and clean drinking water, an 3
abundance of safety and care from the shepherd. It is God’s intention that we have life and have it abundantly.
It would be easy to read this passage and think of it as justification for the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a belief that God means for us all to accumulate great wealth. Since Jesus never accumulated material wealth nor did his disciples, clearly wealth accumulation is not the gospel goal.
We may desire abundance measured by the accumulation of things. What Jesus offers is the abundance of love and care, an abundance of hope and mercy that will follow us our whole life long. It is an abundance that lasts when all else is gone.
The abundant life of Jesus is marked primarily by who we follow. We need a shepherd we can trust when we can no longer trust ourselves. We need a shepherd who seeks us when we are lost, because the shepherd loves us more than we love ourselves.
I don’t know if any of us own sheep, but many of us have dogs and cats. We have two dogs, both White Westland Terriers, sometimes considered cats in dogs’ clothing. They are wonderful little dogs and companions. They are affectionate sitting on our lap or cuddling next to us on the couch. If we are working in the kitchen, they often sit on our feet so as to render us immobile, all the while hoping we drop some food for them.
Most dogs can be trained to come when called. Westies are amongst those dogs that come when they are good and ready. A few years ago, I met a dog trainer and asked if my Westies would benefit from her obedience school. She thought about it for no more than two seconds when she said, “No. Westies are untrainable.”
We keep them in a fenced-in back yard because if they get out, they will not listen when we call them. They just put their noise to the ground and travel wherever the scent takes them or dash off in pursuit of a squirrel real or imagined.
A redeeming characteristic of sheep is they usually come when the shepherd calls their name. Back when our sons played high school 4
basketball there was usually a large crowd gathered in the lobby after a game. Kids would yell out “Mom” and “Dad”, but the place was filled with moms and dads. Our youngest simply yelled, “John Terry” and I answered. He called my name.
If you come into our house our dogs will not stop barking until you pay attention to them and scratch their ears. They don’t care if you are a thief. They just want attention. A thief would just have to scratch their ears, give them a treat, pick them up and steal them and silver not that we have any silver.
But sheep do not come to the voice of a thief. They would not identify that voice. They come to the voice that provides their safety, their food and water, and a safe place of rest. Reflecting on this lesson Dr. Albert Schweitzer observed: In the parable of Jesus, the shepherd saves not merely the soul of the lost sheep but the whole animal.”
There are sheep, a shepherd, and the voice of the shepherd to which they respond. There is also a sheepfold and a gate. In first century Palestine, the shepherd would lead his sheep out to a place where there was pasture for them to eat and where they might stay for several days.
The shepherd created a temporary corral or perhaps found an existing one, a pen to keep the sheep in when they were not grazing. To keep the sheep from wandering at night the shepherd gathered the sheep into a sheepfold. He slept in the entry way to keep the sheep from wandering off. He protected them with his own life from wild animals and thieves. The shepherd became the safe door to the sheepfold. Good shepherds lay down their life to protect the sheep.
Jesus said that we are the sheep of God’s flock. He did not condemn sheep that get lost. Getting lost is what sheep do. Sheep tend to look down no further than the next tuft of grass, so they easily wander off into danger. Like sheep most of the time most of the things we do we do without much reflection. Like sheep, most of the time we just put one foot in front of another and that is how we get through the day. That makes us vulnerable to those who would steal our soul. 5
Jesus said he is the gate. He could have said, “I am one of the gates.” But that was not how the sheepfold functions. There was only one way in and one way out. I know that some have trouble with what seems to be a very exclusive claim that maybe you are only promised an abundant life if you follow Jesus.
But a few sentences later we read that Jesus said he has other sheep that are not in this fold, a statement of God’s inclusive love and care for all. When Jesus said he is the way, it is a way of love and a way of compassion.
He was warning against all who falsely claim that they are the way but speak hatefully and lack compassion. If there are good shepherds, there must also be bad shepherds. Not all who call us to follow them seek what is ultimately good for us.
To have Christ as our shepherd frees us from other ways that might lead us to danger. In Jesus we know that we have a sure entry to the reign of God; a safe gate; a welcoming doorway; a door to love; a door to hope and joy; a goodness and mercy that will follow us our whole life long; a door to life abundant.
As I mentioned earlier, when Jesus called us sheep it is not a compliment. Being a shepherd was not a position of status. People did not think very highly of shepherds in the first century. Shepherds sometimes let their sheep graze on land they were not permitted to graze on. Sometimes they left town without paying their bills. Sometimes people found prized possessions missing after a shepherd had moved on.
Shepherds seldom developed much in the way of social graces. They were sometimes forbidden from appearing as witnesses in court because people did not trust them. For Jesus to call himself a shepherd means that the son of the living God chose to join us in our human condition, taking no status or privilege.
When Jesus talked of the thieves, he was certainly referring to some of the first century religious establishment that were abusing their power and often making financial profit where none should have been made. Jesus stood up to all who falsely claim that they are the way. 6
In some of the darkest and most difficult days of World War II, as Hitler sought for all people to make him their shepherd, the absolute object of their obedience and for his declarations to becomes their will, a group of Christians within Germany stood against Hitler and in what is called the Barman Declaration. It said that “Jesus Christ…is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
To have Christ the way leading us to God frees us from any other way that calls to us to something less. We don’t know if there are other doors, but we know Jesus offers a sure door to God; that he is safe door; that he is a welcoming door; that Jesus is a door to love, to hope, to joy; and that his door is always open to us. This door for Jesus is at once a symbol of his protection and a symbol of hospitality. It is a door open to all of God’s people.
Abundance as Jesus spoke of abundance has to do with the voice we hear, the shepherd we follow, the restoration of our soul, the safety provided, the meal offered, the companionship through the valley of the shadow of death, and the mercy that travels with us forever.
Abundance results from giving and getting, in the shepherd supplying and the sheep receiving. The abundance of the shepherd happens when the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, turn to follow the shepherd and receive the abundance offered.
If the Lord is my shepherd, it is God’s voice for which I listen and God’s voice that I follow. If the Lord is my shepherd, I hear God calling me by name to come and follow. If the Lord is my shepherd, then in the presence of the shepherd I find rest.
If the Lord is my shepherd, then it is the shepherd who guards what enters my mind and heart. If the Lord is my shepherd, I am led beside still, safe waters. If the Lord is my shepherd, I know this is the shepherd that will go with me through the valley of the shadow of death, that goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 7
The promise of a truly abundant life in which we can place our complete trust is with the Good Shepherd who leads us where we need to go and feeds us with the bread of life. The abundant life includes our relationship with the shepherd, whom we know and who knows us. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out and the sheep follow him because we know his voice.”