This sermon was preached via Zoom at Danville Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Danville, California. The text is John 10:1–10.
What is it about shepherds?
Few of us living today practice the art of sheep-herding much less know anyone who works with sheep; but the people of Bible times knew about shepherds—either new or were or had relatives who were shepherds, were familiar with raising and taking care of sheep. Sheep-herding was a central part of their lives and much of the Bible foregrounds their experiences. Through these ancient texts, many of us have gained an understanding—if not a deep appreciation for—those whose job it was to tend sheep.
We might remember the story told during Advent about a group of shepherds who were honored as the first outside the stable to hear about Jesus’ birth thanks to a group of angels and who, thanks to the help of a bright star, arrived in time to see the child lying in a manger named Jesus.
Six weeks ago, we gathered [in this Zoom] to hear and receive assurance from Psalm 23, a passage known as the Divine Shepherd—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…,” or, paraphrased by Bobby McFerrin, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need.” This psalm was written by a shepherd…someone who understood that God loved him and cared for him in the same way he, as a shepherd, loved and cared for his own sheep.
Today, we encounter another passage about a shepherd. This time, that baby born in a stable—the very one who was visited by shepherds—lifts up the work of shepherds as good. And Jesus compares himself to them.
Now, being a shepherd was hard work; shepherds worked long hours and often were away from their families. Being a shepherd was dangerous work. They constantly had to worry about wolves trying to eat their sheep and thieves trying to steal them. And of course there was always at least one sheep wandering off and getting lost. [Anyone who has ever lived with a toddler, tell me you can relate.] And shepherds, well, even though they had important jobs, they weren’t paid very well for this dangerous work. Furthermore, many people were not kind to shepherds; they treated them badly because shepherds were often poor and somehow considered not as good as other people because they worked a service-sector job, laboring behind the scenes to protect other peoples’ property and making sure people had the food and wool they needed to live.
Hm. There’s something to think about.
Jesus compares himself to a shepherd because the people of his time understood the work of shepherds. Specifically, as we read in our text today, they understood the importance of shepherd as gate or gate-keeper.
Let’s orient ourselves with a bit of information about how sheep were cared for back then.
Sometimes, the shepherds needed to come home, needed to go into the village to take care of important business. Now, they couldn’t just park 100 sheep out in front of the local Target or put them in their backyards because well that would make such a mess. And the shepherd’s wife and the neighbors would not like that at all.
So what they had were these sheepfolds—basically boarding houses for sheep, but much less glamorous. Local small businesses set up these big corrals monitored by a team of “super-shepherds”—or gate-keepers. Shepherds would check-in their sheep with the gate-keeper, receive a claim-check, and then go take care of their business or spend the night with their families.
Now interestingly, there wasn’t like a separate corral for each shepherd’s sheep; rather, once the gate-keeper shepherd opened the gate, the sheep went in and hung out with all other sheep. Also interesting.
While the shepherds were gone, it was the job of these “super-shepherds” to watch over all these sheep, day and night. These gate-keepers guarded the gate of the corral and wouldn’t let anyone through the gate unless they had their claim-check and identification. Like watchmen, they patrolled the fences all around the corral to make sure no robber or animal climbed over the fence to try and grab a sheep and run away with her.
When the shepherds returned, they went directly to the gate. The gate-keepers scanned their ticket and once proven the rightful shepherd, they could they enter the gate to retrieve their sheep.
But—here’s a question: If all the sheep were in one big corral, how in the world did each shepherd collect their sheep? Well, Jesus explains the process:
The shepherd called his sheep by name.
He called them, they recognized his voice,
and they followed as he led them out the gate.
Now … when shepherds were with their sheep out in the country and needed to stop somewhere for the night to sleep, the process was different. Shepherds often tended a flock alone; so they would make a pen of sorts by piling up rocks to make a perimeter wall. He would then herd the sheep through the “doorway” of this make-shift pen for the night and then—get this:
The shepherd would lay across the doorway all night to keep the sheep in and the wild animals out. The shepherd actually became—the gate.
Wow—this really explains a lot about shepherds and why Jesus compared himself to them.
And even though there are only 10 verses for today’s text, we could talk about them for hours. But I won’t – I promise!
Let me make just a couple observations.
First—does anyone feel like a sheep all corralled up, unable to go anywhere?
Or—does anyone feel like an exhausted shepherd who would give anything to check-in their sheep somewhere, even for just a few hours?
Or I wonder if anyone feels like a shepherd out in the wilderness, all alone…
Constantly on-guard for predators…
lying in the doorway protecting their sheep night after night after night.
You know, I hear this text—I hear Jesus saying: I understand. I understand what it’s like to love my flock—to protect them with my very life, to make the tough decision to protect them. To stay in place, to remain behind the safety of the gate, until it is safe to be out in the pastures.
Oh, my dear friends, I know this time is difficult.
Our nerves are frayed; our lambs are bouncing off the walls;
our cognitive function faltering, losing track of what day it is; eyes zoomed out,
our longing for physical connection with others blunted by isolation.
So I ask, just for a moment, could we pause…?
Could we pause for a moment … could we close our eyes or move them away from the computer screen…take a deep breath and let it go … and let the eyes of our mind visualize the gate-keepers among us…parents at home with children, care-takers in assisted living facilities, scientists and leaders who are keeping watch over us right now—who are watching over a multitude of sheep, doing their best to keep them safe … could we individually and collectively imagine showering these gate-keepers with gratitude? Radiating that energy outward from our hearts and through the technology of wifi and spirit….
And I wonder if in this moment of stillness, we could imagine the voice of Jesus saying our name.
Hear Jesus saying in this moment, I am with you.
I invite you to say this along with me and add your name.
I am with you, says Jesus. Hear him say your name.
I know you inside and out.
I know you are tired of all these sheep sometimes.
I know you are frightened sometimes.
I know you might be lonely. But I am with you.
(take another deep breath…open your eyes….)
You see, sometimes, sometimes the gates are there to protect us—to keep some things in and others out. Yet not in one second of isolation of grief of loneliness of stir-crazy are we alone. And through it all, Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows our names.
One more observation:
Just on the other side of the gate, Jesus says, there’s abundant life.
Notice that the text does not say Jesus came so that we may have abundance.
It says abundant life.
If all this time in the sheep corral has illuminated anything for me, it is this difference.
Jesus is talking not about a lifestyle of abundance but rather an abundant life. [REPEAT]
I wonder if anyone else’s definition of abundant life has changed during this time?
Last week, a student prayed, longing for an abundance of hugs— “so many, they said, that our arms ached from receiving and offering them all.”
Ahhhh I think we’re onto something here.
You see, somewhere along the way, capitalism has infiltrated this ancient text, has deluded us into thinking that the sign of Jesus’ presence with us could be realized through a collection of things or achievement of status or distancing ourselves away from certain segments of society.
But those pastures Jesus spoke of—they are not just for some but for all the sheep: the able-bodied, the infirmed; the young sheep and the old.
It is not an abundance of things that characterizes this abundant life Jesus promises.
- It is not the owning of green pastures but rather co-existing with them in equilibrium, honoring the earth.
- It’s not first access to still waters or water rights but clean water for all children and the right to drink from those waters without fear of predators or pollution.
- It’s not “a safe neighborhood only if you can afford it” space but rather safe spaces for all to live a life free from any who would “steal and kill and destroy.”
- It’s not refrigerators and pantries so full they’re overflowing but a cup that overflows with generosity and hospitality—a society where all people have enough to eat and drink.
Generosity, hospitality, kindness, goodwill—these are the hallmarks of the abundant life Jesus calls us to envision as we, like sheep, peer through the slats in the gate into the future.
We’ve been corralled for 7 weeks and counting; we’ve been placed behind a gate into a huge timeout while the shepherd prepares to lead us out to a pasture of abundant life. While we wait, the temptation for us will be to long for the same green pastures our society and culture had defined for us before Covid-19—one characterized by a lifestyle of abundance and not an abundant life.
But the world we emerge from the corral into will be changed.
NOW is the time to be re-imagining what constitutes an abundant life and what our role in co-creating that abundance is!
The skies are clear!
We are gathering during the week to pray together.
Children are praying for nurses!
Young people are praying for grocery store workers!
Families are playing games and sharing meals together.
We are staying in touch with our elders and delivering them supplies.
And I don’t know about you, but I will never view essential workers the same again. Before this, the treadmill pace of my life allowed me to process transactions without ever paying attention to the people—from field to shelf—involved in serving me. That ignorance allowed me to ignore pleas for living wages, healthcare, and adequate resources for themselves and their families.
Our time behind the gate is allowing our theological imaginations to envision exactly the kind of abundant life Jesus is promising lies outside that gate! My understanding of the world around me has shifted. And I suspect yours has too.
Abundant life is not about consumption.
It is indeed about having all we need, and being content without excess…
It is about dwelling in the earth responsibly.
It is about understanding our relationship with and responsibility to other people and the earth.
These things constitute the abundant life Jesus spoke of—the one he still invites us each by name to experience today.
My friends, during these days behind the gate, may we recognize the familiar voice of the Good Shepherd—comforting us, restoring our souls, awaiting to shepherd us beyond the gate into the abundant life that awaits.
Once we’re there, let us linger only for a while to gain our strength.
Then be about co-creating spaces of abundant life for all God’s beloved sheep. Amen