“The Gated Community”
Shepherd us, O Lord, beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life. Amen.
If there’s one thing people in Jesus’ time should know about, it’s sheep. Israel, first century, was full of sheep and goats. Most common people had at least a couple in the backyard. Even those of the priestly classes, scribes and Pharisees, recognized one when it landed on the dinner plate. They may have been above such menial day-to-day work as herding, but the history and culture of the Hebrew peoples was intertwined with the ruminants.
The Bible is full of references where people get compared to sheep, and the images are both positive and negative. Psalm 100 pictures God as the great Shepherd: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Later on, the prophets criticize the religious leaders for getting fat themselves instead of guiding those in their care. Ezekiel prophesies “You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand” (Ezekiel 34:2-15). But the people are not blameless. In Isaiah’s exilic lament he cries, “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Sheep are communal animals that need food and shelter and care. They thrive when under good leadership; they stray and struggle when there is no leader. So when Jesus starts talking about sheep, even though we modern listeners struggle with the context, you would think that the Pharisees would clue in.
In John chapter 10 we get the nearest thing to a parable that the gospel throws at us. The pastoral picture is of sheep in an enclosure. There are imposters that try to climb over the wall to get at the sheep, but the real shepherd is the one who comes to the gate. He is let in by the gatekeeper, calls the sheep, and the sheep come to him. The narrative says that they don’t understand the figure of speech he uses. Maybe Jesus’ listeners are suspicious or deliberately playing dumb. After all, he can’t be comparing them to thieves and bandits, when it is their job to be the shepherds of Israel. Can he? Jesus echoes the prophets’ criticism of leaders who are not leading, but there is more. He also challenges the people to listen for God’s voice. If they, like the sheep, want to find new pastures and fresh water, they have to come to the gate when they hear the Shepherd’s voice.
Maybe we have a cosy picture in our minds of the sheep led safely into the pen to live happily ever after. But sheep can’t live in a sheepfold. They crowd each other. They run out of food and water. It is a cramped space. That’s only where they are kept at night, away from the predators. In the morning, the shepherd comes to the gate and the gatekeeper opens it up to allow the flock out. Those who recognize the shepherd’s voice come out to be led to pasture. It is the coming out that is important.
I was on a bus last year that got stuck for three hours on the Coquihalla summit because a semi-trailer had spun out on the ice in front of us. I started talking to the passenger in the seat next to me, as one does. Turned out that she was a real live sheepherder from France who was on her way to Revelstoke to work in the fields for two months with local shepherds for the season. I learned many interesting facts about sheep. One is that sheep, like many animals, are scared of confining spaces. They avoid them. So getting sheep to go through a gate is sometimes a difficult task if they cannot see the point of the pasture on the other side (where the grass is presumably greener). One way to get them to move is to call one or more of the elder females of the flock to the front and persuade her through the opening. The other sheep will trust that this is a signal that it is safe and will follow. This is what Jesus was talking about.
The Pharisees don’t much like what they think he is getting at: portraying them as untrustworthy leaders. But Jesus is not finished. He goes on to give them a different scenario. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.” (John 10:7-8). Now in a sense this is hyperbole. Of course Moses and the prophets and those who came before Jesus weren’t all bad. But Jesus could here be referring to all the other messiah-types who were running around Palestine at the same time as him. There were lots of would-be charismatic leaders in his time as there are in ours, although in 30 A.D. they weren’t necessarily running for public office. Here he is giving the people credit for some discernment. The crowds who have come forward to hear the good news recognize the truth. They risk the safety of their everyday lives to find life abundant and freedom in his call.
And this is where we too have a choice. If we want a change in our lives, we cannot be tempted to remain too comfortable. There are those who are like the sheep in the pen, preferring to stay in relative safety and not leave the familiar. But they will get very hungry and weak. And there are others who are so far outside the pen that they won’t seek its safety even when danger threatens. They can easily get lost and lonely.
A healthy Church is a gated community. That expression means something very different in our modern parlance. It conjures up a picture of perfect little homes of like-minded citizens who all live together inside a wall because they don’t much like or trust those outside. The gate rolls open when you punch a code into a control panel or you are let in by the worker in the little gatehouse at the entrance. And the gate rolls shut once you go inside so that the great unwashed don’t follow you. Although there are unfortunately some places where this protection is an advantage, this is not what Jesus is talking about as a model for the Church.
The Church is a different kind of gated community. It is not a fortress. We do not lock people in or lock people out. And we should not have leaders that want to do one or the other. But we do have a clear entrance point that those who are searching for forgiveness and healing can come to for sanctuary. At the same time, that door is also the transition for servants to go out into the world to do ministry, as they hear the voice of God calling them. The gatekeepers are those who help others to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Sometimes this is a call to go in to safety. But often it is a call to come out of the enclosure and to work for freedom, truth, and justice in the wider landscape. And there is one gate, Jesus Christ, whose voice is the one we need to hear in order to pass safely to and fro.
Sheep do best when they stick together in the flock. If there are not enough leader-sheep, the flock won’t have courage to move out of the sheepfold. The sheep have to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd and one another in order to get out together to where the green grass is waiting. Religious leaders get cast in different roles: sheepdogs, gatekeepers, hired hands or even bandits. But although we are pastors, we are not the chief pastor. What I can affirm, in spite of my last name, is that there is only one Good Shepherd. As psalm 95 says, He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hear his voice!