Sheep and Shepherds
I don’t know about you but I’ve never considered myself a sheep. But this doesn’t stop scripture from being peppered with the image of God as a shepherd tending to a flock and us as the flock that needs tending. Sheep are often portrayed as dumb and helpless, but in reality they’re just vulnerable and dependent on an entity who knows the terrain and will look out of them. Sheep are hard-wired to trust, and it’s not a question of if they trust but it’s a question of who they trust. Perhaps in that way, I’m more like a sheep than I’d admit.
We heard Corey read psalm 23, which is probably the most recognizable of all the psalms. “The Lord is my shepherd....” it starts, and it tells the story of a perilous journey from the perspective of a sheep who thankfully ends up in a better place. But the sheep doesn’t get there on his own wits and ingenuity. The sheep has a shepherd who guides him and comforts him- the sheep trusts this shepherd, even though we can assume he doesn’t fully understand the shepherd.
We also heard Lisa tell the story of Jesus describing himself as the shepherd and the gatekeeper. If you’re wondering how someone could be both the shepherd and the gatekeeper, it’s important what it looked like to be a shepherd in the first century. At night, the shepherd and sheep would need to sleep but the shepherd’s job of protecting the sheep wouldn’t take a break. So shepherds had corral-type areas, which were walls built in a horseshoe shape with one opening.
And that opening was just the right size for the shepherd to lay across and sleep. This way, if anything tried to get in or out of the sheepfold, they’d have to go over him, and he’d wake up. If a sheep got a wild hair (wool?) and wanted to explore the outside world, it would have to step on him in order to do it… and if, more likely, a wolf wanted to get into the sheepfold for a midnight snack, it would have to go through the shepherd first. It’s that level of sacrificial love that we see played out on the cross.
Jesus is the gate: not a fence or a wall, not a lock or a key, Jesus is the gate. Jesus is not the one who separates or isolates. Jesus is the one who both keeps us safe and connects us to the wider world.
Jesus doesn’t specify if he’s the gate for coming or going: he is the gate. The sheep would leave out the gate each morning to go get nourishment in the fields and they’d return at night for comfort and safety from predators. This gate is a two-way street.
A lot of people have been talking in this pandemic about freedom: what does freedom look like when I can’t visit the salon or take my kid or a public playground? What does freedom look like when some workers are deemed essential and others are non-essential? But Christian freedom doesn’t mean we get to just do what we want when we want to. Christian freedom is the freedom to listen to the voice of our good shepherd, and to trust that voice to lead us and accompany us even through the valley of the shadow of death.
I think this is an important point to remember. The psalmist writes ‘through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me.’ God isn’t here to get us around the valley or to help us find shortcuts. God isn’t here to speed up our pain or to find a way for us to avoid the unavoidable. But God is with us through the valley: through our quarantining and social isolation, through our worries about our health and our future, and through our grief over the way of living we miss.
Jesus ends this gospel reading saying “I came that they may have life and may have it abundantly.” What does it mean to have an abundant life? I can’t imagine it’s one marked by material possessions. I also can’t imagine that an abundant life is one that completely avoids pain, suffering and grief because the only ones who can avoid grief are the ones who don’t love. But abundant life comes from having confidence that we are trusting a good shepherd -- one that will bring us to a better place.