First Congregational Church
May 3, 2020
4th Sunday in Easter
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Scott Hoezee, of Calvin Theological Seminary, told the 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. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their 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. 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’s a good - and relevant - ending, but when it started out, I truly thought that this would be the story about a man - waking up at night, hearing faint cries for help. Getting out of bed to see what was going on, the homeowner finally realized that the cries were coming from the front yard.
Still trying to figure out the reason for such a plaintive plea, the homeowner eventually made his way to the big tree in the front yard with the swing on it - near the street light. The homeowner asked the man why he needed help. The person on the swing said, “I need a push!”
This morning’s scripture passage has nothing to do with fireplaces or swings, at least of what I’m aware. I did discover, at an interesting internet site called generationword.com that the passage we will hear in a moment probably took place between October 15 and December 25, right before Jesus’ final month in Jerusalem. Experts disagree on the number of people in Jerusalem at that time, but it was probably somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people. For reasons of comparison, Traverse City’s population is about 15,000 and 144,000 people in its micropolitan area. Frankfort’s population is about 1,200 in the winter time. All this is to say that it Jesus and the disciples were probably on the edge of town, where they might see farms and sheep and donkeys and fields.
Scripture John 10:1-10
“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.
As I thought about this passage, it came to me that 1. life is full of metaphors and that 2. those same metaphors are prone to getting mixed up. If you’d have been able to be here in person, you might have noted the top of the bulletin’s Order of Worship page, right under the Meditative Sentence at the beginning. It is a quote by Mardy Grothe, author of I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like.”
She said, “A metaphor is a kind of magical changing room — where, one thing, for a moment, becomes another, and in that moment is seen in a whole new way. As soon as something old is seen in a new way, it stimulates a torrent of new thoughts and associations, almost as if a mental floodgate has been lifted.”
Penandthepad.com says that the difference between an allegory and a metaphor is that an allegory uses a narrative - or story - to express an idea or teach a lesson, while a metaphor uses a word or phrase. One of my favorite little books is Hinds Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard, which is an allegorical novel, filled with metaphors. After her encounter with the Good Shepherd, Much Afraid, the main character in the story becomes Grace and Glory. I believe that sentence is laced with allegory and metaphor, but I don’t know that I’m smart enough to dissect it.
In our scripture passage, there seem to be two metaphors: sheep and gates. From the deep, dark past of my memory, I seem to recall hearing that one should not mix metaphors in writing or speaking. If you are speaking about a topic on rocks, you really shouldn’t use examples of cows or comedians in discussing the topic. Unless you could bring the topic together with a comical cow statue carved from stone.
Ordinarily, sheep and gates don’t have a lot to do with one another, so logically, they wouldn’t be used in the same paragraph. But sometimes, what appears to be mixed up, simply requires a little shearing of custom and time.
In the west, we are used to seeing sheep, cattle, cats - wait, no, not cats - herded into pens and the farmer or keeper shuts the gate and that’s about it. In the Middle East, especially back in Jesus’ day, sheep pens didn’t have gated doors. When night came, and the sheep were herded into the pen, the shepherd laid down across the opening and slept there, so that he - or maybe she - would know if a sheep would try to get out or a predator would try to get in to the sheep. Once we have that l little piece of information, the paragraph about Jesus, sheep and a gate makes all kinds of sense, which is a single metaphor, rather than two.
It’s not certain that this was the intent Jesus had in mind. But the passage is fluid enough that we can hold both images in creative tension, as Scott Hoezee from Calvin Theological Seminary says. What is certain, as the remarkable pastor at Frankfort Congregational Church says, is that being protected and lead to sustenance is what leads to that place of blissful peace - what is called shalom in Hebrew.
Mr. Hoezee also pointed out that “Ordinarily the gate or door needs to be moved aside, it has to yield and give way, in order for a person or a sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. But in a sense isn’t this what Jesus did by coming to this earth?”
That remarkable pastor at Frankfort Congregational points out, that in raising Christ, God lead him to that place of shalom that is foreign to us mere humans - like showing up for breakfast on the beach with the disciples and showing up to a couple of disciples in their walk to Emmaus and all the other post-resurrection appearances Christ made.
While all of this information is well and good, what difference does it make when a person’s business is looking to fall into bankruptcy? And what difference does it make - Jesus calling himself a gate - when a child’s teacher is having a rough go of the covid virus, while trying to keep her family safe and her students engaged?
For one thing, Christ is a living gate - not some dead wood gate that can be destroyed by termites, blade or fire. Our God is a god of Life - with a capital L - even when it doesn’t look like it. We have a God who understands when our hearts hurt, when we are frustrated and worried. And as the passage says, God knows our name.
And our God understands the fear that wolves cause us - fears not only of things we can see - but things that are invisible to us like viruses. Amid all those sneaking and stalking fears, our Shepherd and Gate promise us love and power and a presence that cannot be eradicated - even when those promises seem to be so far fetched and unrealistic.
As so often happens, one of my favored writers of inspiration put out a wonderful one this past week. Stephen Garnaas-Holmes wrote, “Resurrection is the unkillableness of love that nothing can stop, not even death and despair. Resurrection is when we love to the bitter end - even when it's really bitter, and really the end, and God carries it on anyway in a grace we can't see because the love we have is actually God and God is eternal. Resurrection is what gives us the audacity to get all up in the devil's face with joy and kindness and hope, and laugh at all his threats, and love people as if there were no tomorrow precisely because - there always is one, and it's always God.”
In our every day lives, metaphors can get so mixed up. Truth can get mixed up. Reality can get misshapen or misconstrued. We can so easily succumb to the idea that we are powerless and ineffectual. But our God knows your name. Calls your name, when life is easy and when it’s hard. Like a shepherd who knows which sheep tend to graze away from the flock, or knows which sheep are more susceptible to parasites or foot and mouth disease, our Shepherd knows our propensities and loves us through them - despite them.
A person named Patty Wipfler wrote on Facebook this week. “At nine in the evening you may feel like you got nothing done all day long. But if I’d been shadowing you, I could list a hundred quiet acts of caring that you are too tired to remember.”
For those feeling badly about being tired-while-not-doing-anything, I came across an article this week on vice.com titled, “Allostatic Load” is the Psychological Reason for our Pandemic Brain Fog.” The article cited the repeated and collective hits of elevated stress hormones is the exhaustion not of body - but of brain. If there were real people in the pews today, I know I would witness a collective sigh of silent “thank God!”s. And to give it it’s needed levity, I’m going to be calling it Covid-Brain from now on. And you’re welcome.
What ever the threat, whatever the fear, our Shepherd doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back away. Our Shepherd may get a little frustrated at times, trying to herd people with cat mentalities, but our Shepherd is also patient and understanding of our brains and hearts and souls. Our Gate-Keeper is available to us - whether we are on the mountaintops or in the valleys or the hills in-between - protecting us from wickedness and weirdness we sometimes don’t even realize is lurking around the corner. Whether we have the Covid virus, Covid brain, painful backs, broken hearts, cancer scares, or any other human malady, we also have a Shepherd who knows our hearts and how to comfort our hearts, if we listen to the Shepherd’s voice. So shall we pray.
God of mystery and mundane, thank you for giving us the ability to evaluate our situations as best we can, for the ability to hear and know the sound of your voice and for the freedom to make our way into your circular arms of protection. Thank you for being the gate of shalom, and for the moments you give us to reflect on that gift as well as the moments we can practice weaving them more deeply into our lives. Forgive us when we get headstrong and willful, and lead us back to our safety in you. Heal our worries and anxieties, clear our clogged thoughts and restore to us the shalom that you desire for all your people. For all your grace and love and goodness, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.