I’m behind on posting lots of things. Here’s a sermon about sheep (Easter 4A, 2008):
Today’s gospel gives us two of three parable Jesus tells in the gospel of John about sheep, the third one being Jesus’ famous words about being the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.. It is likely that Jesus didn’t tell the stories right in a row like this. He probably told them on separate occasions and John put them together because of their common theme (kind of like telling stories about great uncle Billy: “oh and that reminds me of the time when he said this . . . “)
As Jesus told these parables, his listeners would probably have pictured a communal sheep pen in the village to which various flocks would be herded at night. The shepherds would take turns being gatekeeper (perhaps using their own bodies as the gate while they slept across the opening) and then each shepherd would come and call out his own sheep (through the gate) with a call that the sheep had learned to recognize from him.
In these three parables about sheep, shepherds and pens, Jesus focuses on different parts of the image. In the first parable, Jesus doesn’t identify himself with any particular part, but rather notes that true shepherds enter by the gate and don’t climb over the wall, while others–thieves and bandits–climb over the wall. The sheep, he notes, recognize the shepherd’s voice and follow him. He doesn’t at this point identify himself with the shepherd–he does quite explicitly a bit later–so he seems to be making a point about people other than himself.
The second parable identifies Jesus with the gate to the sheepfold. If true shepherds enter only by the gate, then their entrance, he says, is through him. In the first parable, he says that the sheep will not follow a stranger (i.e. the thieves and bandits who have climbed over the wall), but he does say in the second that the thief comes in “only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Some biblical scholars tell us that John is using these parables by Jesus to encourage the church in a very difficult time, a time when different teachings have arisen, a time when the church has been challenged and maligned by the Jewish communities of which they’d originally been a part, a time when things seem quite precarious and dangerous.
Today’s reading is preceding by the amazing story of Jesus healing the man born blind. In it, the Pharisees are shown to be blind to Jesus’ true identity and blind to the very signs that he is working. It ends with the lines,
“Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.”
The whole set of sheep and shepherd parables closes with parallel words:
Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
A bible interpretation tip here: if a passage has very similar phrases surrounding it–as in this one where we find two parallel references to blindness–one should consider that they are meant to highlight something.
I think John is trying to get us to understand something about us as a community and about the leadership of our communities. The Pharisees–that is, the authorities–are blind, John tells us, so listen carefully to find out how we should see.
One of the overriding questions for these parables is “how do we know that our leaders and teachers come from God?” “How do we see them?” You’ll recognize them, Jesus says, because they will come into the community by the proper way: through the gate. They won’t sneak in, they won’t take shortcuts and they know their sheep.
Leadership in the Christian community takes various forms–or at least it should. There is the obvious leadership of the bishop, as chief pastor, administrator, and bearer of the tradition. There is that of the priests, essentially deputized by the bishop to teach, preach, offer pastoral care and administer the sacraments. Those are pretty obvious. But then there is the leadership of the deacon, who reminds the community and each of its members of their duty to serve the least and most easily forgotten around them. There is the leadership of those whose lives seamlessly integrate Christ’s love and reconciliation wherever they are–at home, at work, even at church. There are those whose wisdom helps the community stay on course when fear or confusion or wounds threaten to lead them astray. There are those whose leadership is in the formation and education of all of the members of the community. Christian leadership is meant–as we are reminded by Paul’s powerful metaphor of the church as a living body–to be diverse and varied, lay and ordained.
So how do we recognize that leadership as being that which Jesus would have for us? First, those leaders don’t sneak in. They don’t manipulate their way to prominence, nor do they hide their light under a bushel basket. They are true to who they are and who God has called them to be, no more and no less. Second, they don’t take shortcuts. This is a hard one. The work of love and reconciliation is hard, yet it cannot be sidestepped. True leaders in our community are willing to stay in hard conversations, to hear all of the stories, to allow God to do God’s work in God’s time. The shortcuts of manipulation and deception (or at least dissimulation), taking advantage of lack of communication, of using fear or other forms of pressure–none of these things are the ways that true shepherds enter a community.
Those first two characteristics find completion in the third: the true shepherds know their sheep. Shepherds who tend to use their sheep for wool rather than meat will spend years with their sheep. The sheep learn to know their shepherd’s voices and the shepherd knows theirs. Sneaking in will not lead to better knowledge, nor will taking shortcuts. That comes only with time and entering into the relationships directly and honestly. (You’ll note that the issue in the story of the healing of the blind man, that the Pharisees don’t know him or recognize him.)
The second parable that Jesus tells gives another key to leadership in our communities of faith. Jesus is the gate, so the true leaders will enter through him. But what does this mean? Those who enter by the gate of Jesus will be like him (tall order, but what we’re all called to follow): they will seek out and love those who are usually on the margins, they will offer words of encouragement to the struggling and words of challenge to the comfortable, they will serve rather than look to be the boss, they will relate to God with the trust of a child to a parent, they will offer healing and nourishment in surprising and abundant ways, they will seek God’s glory rather than their own. Now, none of us is Jesus, and we will never fully live up to those things. We will see, however, glimpses of that gate in our various shepherds and a desire in them to be more and more like him.
So that’s all very nice and orderly. I don’t usually write sermons with three point lists: the three qualities of a godly life, five steps to forgiveness. But here you are, the three qualities of Christian leadership, or conversely, how not to be a thief and a bandit: don’t sneak in, don’t take shortcuts, make sure you know the sheep.
But there’s a wrinkle to all of this. In what we’ve heard, we have a nice, safe sheepfold, walled all around, the one opening guarded by Jesus, kindly shepherds who call our names. but there’s a catch. All of this is to prepare the sheep to leave.
If the sheep were to spend all of their time in the pen, there would essentially be no need for shepherds. The pens are to keep the sheep safe so that they can do something more important: leave.
Leaving is tricky. On the one had, the food and water are outside the sheepfold; on the other, most of the dangers are, too. But this is what shepherds do, they lead their sheep out into a big world full of lovely green grass and sharp-toothed wolves, full of clear running streams and steep cliffs.
As Christians, most of us will not spend our lives inside the sheepfold, if we understand it to be the church. Nor should we. We are made to go out into the wide, wild world and face both its joys and its dangers. The difference is that we have a good Shepherd who leads us, knows us and is willing to give all for us.
All the more reason to pay attention to who your shepherds are and to pay attention to what happens inside the fold. Jesus implies at first that the sheep will not follow these thieves and bandits because the sheep don’t know their voices. There is a danger, however. The thieves enter, he says, to “steal and kill and destroy.” They do damage inside the sheepfold so that the sheep cannot leave, the sheep cannot go out to find nourishment.
Another mark, then, of a thief and a bandit infiltrating the Christian community is that somehow the members of the community are not permitted or encouraged to leave the fold. Strange, isn’t it? But Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. . . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Staying in the sheepfold won’t do it.