Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4) - John 10:1-10
Jesus doesn’t take too kindly to sheep-stealing. He doesn’t like it when people try and enter into the sheep pen to rustle-up their flock from those of his sheep. He doesn’t like it because the thievery harms his sheep and the thief. The thievery makes for bad shepherds and abused lambs. It showcases a form of entitlement, as all theft does, that “I want what you have Jesus and I don’t think you deserve it.” Or, “There are some sheep in there that are a little too smelly, too stinky, too dirty or of the wrong breed Jesus. We need to cull the flock a little. Make it more pure or proper, like a good shepherd should.” Never thinking that the sheep that are in the pen are his sheep. Sheep he wants to be there. All of them sheep. None of them anything else but his sheep whom he knows by name and they know his voice.
As a track coach, I have spent a lot of time evaluating talent. You look at a particular athlete and you try and see their strengths and weaknesses. You look at their times they run, or their size, and you say – She’s a thrower; he’s a sprinter; she’s a high jumper; he is a pole vaulter. Your attempt is to match people up with where they will succeed. Success is essential to the psychology of sports, and some success means letting the kids do something they want, but other times it means they have to do something they are good at.
The unfortunate thing with these evaluations is that we step-in as coaches sometimes and have to tell an athlete you are running this race because you are good at it and you are part of a team and we need you in order to have success as a team. But the athlete hates that. They hate running the mile because it’s such a long race, but they are good at it. They want to be a high jumper, but they’re 5 feet tall and have my vertical leap.
If you want to use a different sports analogy, how about football? In football, most lineman are lineman because they can’t catch the ball, or they are not that fast, or they are so massive that making the opponent try and move them is as big of an undertaking as scoring a touchdown. They’re not going to be starting quarterback, but they may prevent the quarterback from going to the hospital.
This is all common sense when it comes to sports. You want to see the kids do well and it is your job as a coach to develop them. Where this goes wrong though is in the church. We take this evaluative process and we think it will work with sinners to try and maintain a “healthy” flock, or maybe even manage this Jesus who is so unmanageable because he keeps coming home with more sheep that we have no input on where they belong or what their role may be.
It’s not just sports, or the church. We do it all the time with everything. We’ll decide who is worthy of respect. Who is worthy enough to teach our children. Who is worthy enough to date our daughters, never wondering if our sons our worthy enough to date their daughters. Who deserves this job or not. Who is worthy of grace, of forgiveness, of inclusion, of mercy and a righteousness that is undeserved.
Christ deals with these concerns here in John 10, by first addressing the leaders, then talking to the people. The leaders embody the thieves. Those who have decided they deserve to have the sheep. They deserve to take from another’s flock determining who they should or should not be sharing the barn with. They avoid the gate and the shepherd because they don’t want to get caught. They know they are doing wrong, but they want to see if they can get away with it. Go through the back door to bring out a few sheep here and there to devour them, to destroy, to pretty up the flock so that it will be more attractive in their eyes.
Then Jesus really upsets our sensibilities. You see there is no picture of the sheep here. No description except – they are sheep. And these sheep have ears to hear, but they only hear the voice they know. They only hear this voice of their Shepherd who enters from where he should, sees the sheep as named individuals, one’s who are so personally connected to this shepherd that he can call them by that name and they come running. There may be other sheep in the barn led by other shepherds, but his he knows. He opens his mouth, and they listen and go. He leads them out through the gate and they go off to the green pastures and still waters.
There are no thoughts to whether they have a particular color of wool. How clean the wool is. Whether they have a limp or a missing eye. They are sheep. They are his. And they have names. To anyone else, to the other shepherds, to the thieves and robbers, they are nameless walking pieces of flesh. Disposable. Dirty. Unnecessary apart from the role they play on your grill in the summer.
I say all of this because the church, and I mean us, has the history of phonebooth ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is a big word that just means the study of being or doing church. How we gather, who is invited, and what happens here. Phonebooth theology is the attempt to weed out the unwanted or different, while holding onto all those whom we think belong. For some of you this could mean a particular political view. It could mean a sexual identity. A way of dressing. An age group. A type of worship. Gender roles. Background. Even how one speaks.
In those ways we become thieves. We become robbers. Robbing the sheep of the Shepherd. Robbing them of Jesus. Saying that they have to meet a certain standard to get through the gate. It isn’t just the uber-religious. I’m not necessarily picking on those we think too religious, too heavenly minded. You can be a thief and a robber by saying things like – At least I am not one to throw the first stone. At least I’m not a Pharisee. At least I’m not judgmental like that person. Trying to cast those sheep out to weed the flock of “bad” seed.
We’re all basically the same. We’re all judgmental. We try not to be. We try not to say – did you see how she dressed? Did you hear what he did? But it’s our default. It’s where our sin comes up for air. Showing itself in little things. I don’t want you to think that I am saying - Awww, you can’t help yourself. It’s ok. Because it’s not. It’s not ok for me to allow my sin to overwhelm me. To use it to do the very things it wants to which is to steal, kill, and destroy. And that’s me. The pastor. I know me.
There is a remedy though. Remember these words always – I am the gate of the sheep. That’s Jesus. Jesus decides the entry process. He decides who belongs and who to open to. And he says to you now – as those who enter through me, you are the saved ones. I have saved you. Saved you from the robbers and thieves and destroyers. Saved you from the other sheep who bite and torment. Who harm and hinder you from following me out to safe pasture.
Even worse – Once you enter through me, you won’t listen to the false shepherds anymore. It may seem like it, you may look in their direction and come to them when they dangle a carrot, but those thieves don’t know your name, apart from “Here sheepy, sheepy.” Trying to distract you by getting you to close your ears to the Shepherd and the Gate. To get you to think of other things or other people, even to try and kill you.
But Christ is this gate, which is one of death. A death of self. A death of ears for sin, and instead ears yearning for life. Abundant life. Life that overflows. That drowns you in his word and salvation to cover you in his redemption.
That is why hearing this Gospel, the good news of a crucified Christ and risen Jesus is essential. Because all these other things come in and try to take you away. But the role of the preacher, of me your pastor, is to point us back to the Christ Gate. The gate of the sheep that is more than a gate. I can’t help myself but give this news to you. If for any other reason, I am a sinful sheep in need of the words of his Shepherd. If I can’t preach to myself, I can’t preach to you. We are a gathering of the sheep pen, full of clean and dirty sheep. Lame and wounded, sick and sore lambs. But there is green pasture for us, and Christ knows the way. He says to you, follow me. Thanks be to God. Amen