First Congregational Church
March 4, 2017
Third Sunday in Lent
“More Than a Gate Meeting the Eye”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For those who have been unable to attend the last two episodes of Bill’s Bible Study, you’ve missed some really good stuff. In fact, when I started to prepare for this morning’s message, much of what he spoke about, regarding parables, came back to mind. For those of you who were there, hold on. For those of you who weren’t, I’d like you to turn to the announcement insert in your bulletin, to the bottom of the second page, where there are the four lines of capital letters.
Bill used these letters in helping us get to the idea of understanding context helping in making a passage make sense. At first blush, these letters don’t make much sense, until we understand that they are a conversation between two river guys from the cranberry bogs of Maine. Looking over the water, at the wildlife in the distance, the first one commented, “M R D U C K S / M R N O T / O S A R / C M W A N G S / L I B / M R D U C K S.”
One could perhaps changed the specific context to a similar one - like switching it out from Maine cranberry boggers to Minnesotan wild rice harvesters or pheasant hunters or whatever scenerio you wish to paint. But the general story - a discussion between two individuals with their own dialect can carry the riddle point.
There’s been a lot of mention in the news lately about teachers being armed with guns. Now before anyone gets their dander up, this is not a commercial for or against that idea. It is, however an example of context, and how not understanding the context or background of a situation robs us of better insight.
Many of you know there continues to be a strong interest in my life with choir directing. One of the Facebook pages I follow - ever so briefly - is one for Choral Directors. A director posted this description, asking for ways to continue to see through to the goal of instilling great music in the minds and hearts of students. Whoever it was said, “One of my students has brutally attempted suicide three times this year. Another, twice. Two more, once each. And another left her suicide note to her mom, but was caught just in time.”
Add to this teacher’s already emotional plate, the demands for lesson plans, concerts and other school activities, one can better understand how another emotional topic, like guns and school safety, can make for a huge plate of lutefisk for teachers. With this context, you can better understand the inclusion for prayers for our teachers just a few moments ago.
There is not such an emotional context for this morning’s scripture passage, but there is some that can help us when we get to the reading about sheep. Although sheep are said to be dumb, they at least know the sound of their caretakers voice. Knowing that God wouldn’t create anything that would rightfully carry the title of dumb or stupid, sheep provide food - of different sorts - cheese, milk, mutton, lamb, besides providing wool. And on top of that there is a difference between shepherding and sheep herding that is described best as leading vs. driving.
In fact, there is a story from a source called Upline, from 1999 where Joe Batten, member of the National Speaker’s Association Hall of Fame, was meeting with a group of 35 corporate CEOs for a day-long seminar. In helping the CEOs determine if they were shepherds or sheepherders, he shared this - so he said - true story.
In the Middle East there are two countries separated only by a common border which each have large sheep and mutton industries. The cultures of the two countries are radically different, and they are hostile to each other. In fact, they have fought wars with each other and they are fighting as we speak.
In one country, the shepherds walk behind their flocks. In the other country, the shepherds walk in front of their flocks. In the country where the shepherds walk behind their flocks, the quality of the mutton and the wool is poor, and it is not a profitable industry. In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the quality of the mutton and wool is excellent and the profitability is high.
In the flocks where the sheepherder walks behind and drives and pushes, and corrects, and is always in charge, the young sheep grow up afraid to stray from the flock for fear of being rapped up-side the head by a staff, or having the dogs sent out to round them up. They have no opportunity to explore for better grass and water, or to play with other young lambs. They simply become obedient, passive and apathetic. By the time they are grown, they have lost all initiative. They are not really healthy.
In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the young lambs have plenty of opportunity to stray, play, experiment, and then catch up to the flock. Instead of feeling overly controlled, compressed, repressed, depressed and suppressed, they feel free, empowered, enhanced, and stretched. They eat more, sleep better and grow up large and healthy. They are truly led. Joe Batten then asked the assembled executives once more, “How many of you truly lead in your company?” Not a hand was raised!
John 10:1-10 (NIV)
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 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 listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Thank you, Cheryl. My guess that for a good many folks, this anecdote goes along swimmingly, until Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Jesus was just talking about shepherds and shepherding and it’s like he switches metaphors, right in the middle of a story.
Maybe these were two stories that got put together because of the overriding topic of sheep. Understanding the context of Middle East shepherding, it’s easier to understand the idea of following Jesus, especially when we are lost, listening for Jesus’ voice, knowing that the One we can completely trust will lead us to safety and rest when we need it and food and drink when it is time. But then Jesus says, “I am the gate.”
In some versions, Jesus says, “I am the door.” But still; besides the greater answer - of Jesus can do anything because he is God’s son - how can Jesus be both shepherd and gate at the same time?
Because part of the context that John leaves out of this story is not what we have seen in movies. Most movies that have scenarios of sheep or cattle or horses have fences with gates that swing open and closed. In some places where shepherding is done, rather than fences with doors, there are fences or enclosures of branches or thorns - with no gate. After the sheep are in the enclosure, the shepherd lays down in the doorway. No sheep will step over and no wolf will get past the shepherd. And because of the sheep’s fear of unknown individuals, they will raise a raucous if a thief tries to get into the pen.
Laying down for the lives of a shepherd’s sheep has some rather significant theological implications for us, because isn’t that what Jesus did for us - laying down his life for us? In some commentaries, where the idea is not of a gate that lays down, but swings back and forth, there is a similar idea of Christ “moving aside” or swinging his divinity to the side in “God becoming flesh” and then in going to the cross, Christ put his flesh aside for us, that in going to the cross. And whatever way you look at it, there is that remarkable, mystical God with Jesus - and us - through the whole ordeal.
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. She heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward the living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing.
Scott Hoezee, who was relating this story, said, “I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ only true sheep and others as outsiders. (If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees who loved to point out the lines of inclusion and exclusion.) The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep.
As we will hear next week, Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep -- thieves, bandits, and wolves.
It goes without saying that there are many thieves and bandits in our world who seek to steal and kill and destroy. There are also “wolves in sheep’s (or shepherd’s) clothing” - preachers and pastors who proclaim the abundant life that Jesus offers as a life of continual health, wealth, and success.
Part of the reason for this series on Jesus’ “I AM” statements is to refocus on what kind of access we want to be toward those who come to us for safety. Are we, in fact, including them, asking them to join us, reaching out to them, despite our own busy schedules and worthy excuses? And in case you’re wondering, this is the part of the sermon that is for me.
“I AM the gate” reminds us not only about Jesus’ protection, but of the choice we have to be includers or excluders. Jesus as a shepherd gatekeeper shapes our reality in allowing us to enter into places that may feel strange or even dangerous, but where we know Christ has our best interest and safety at heart, leading us in those paths most surely when we listen to those still, small voices calling us to trust and believe when it seems most paradoxical to do so.
This shepherding/gatekeeping relationship we have with God is not a one-sided dictatorial bond, but one of mutual appreciation and understanding. So let us begin our week of being shepherded with a little conversation with the Gatekeeper.
Loving and Precious God, we thank you for giving us a shepherd, rather than a sheep herder. Thank you for the respect and courtesy of being created as individuals, able to make up our own minds about following you. Forgive us when we turn down the volume on the still small voices of our conscience and heart when we don’t do what we know you have need of us to do. Empower us, in your mercy and forgiveness, to venture out again, heeding your voice, to reach out to others who are so in need of a kind word or a gentle touch. For all the blessings of inclusion, safety, esteem and all the other ways that enrich us as your children, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.