[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
On Seducing Sheep
Pray with me
You are the gate.
You are the good shepherd.
You are the rock, the resurrection,
You are so many things, Holy One.
But, whatever you are for us today,
We just ask that you be close at hand
And tend your sheep
and remind us we are enough.
My niece, Faith, shows lambs. She’s raised two, and those two have now gone on to make a few more.
Her one lamb, Dolly, just had a baby boy, which she rightfully named Kenny, after the beloved St. Kenny of the Rogers. Dolly and Kenny will always be together, am I right?
But she shows lambs and I got to see her do it once at the Carolina State Fair, and it was really interesting.
Because the lambs? They’re a little clueless. I mean, you really have to lean in hard on them to get their legs straight, to hold their faces forward…and that’s just the showing part. All the work that goes in to get them there with the raising, feeding, grooming, it’s a bit crazy.
And while it’s clear the lambs are being shown at the fair, what may not be as clear…but what became really evident to me…is that the lamb-keeper is being judged just as much, if not more so, than the lamb.
They stand there with their beast, holding it still, with their eyes focused on the judge, like some sort of statue in an action pose, muscles tense. And they don’t take their eyes off the judge, even when the judge has her back to them. In fact, as the judge passes, they all quickly get on the other side of their lamb, keeping the lamb as still as can be, so that they are always kept between the judge and the lamb.
I mean, I spent most of my adult life in the bustling city of Chicago, far away from lambs unless I ordered them at the little Lebanese place down the block from my house. Dolly and Faith, by the way, don’t like it when I talk like that…
But anyway, it’s all a little shocking and strange to me. Everything is being judged in that moment: the lamb, the shepherd, everything.
You know, I grew up thinking of God a lot like that judge.
Like God was watching, intently, on every move I made. And I felt like what Jesus did, in my young brain, was protect me from God.
Jesus kept me on the straight and narrow, like that lamb owner does with that lamb, holding it’s head up, making sure it was standing up straight, staying between the judgment of God and my little lamby self.
I think a lot of people think of Jesus that way…and it’s no wonder, the church has certainly set up the scene to reflect that. If Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for a God who demands payment, ransom, judgment, well…then that sort of scenario makes sense, right?
Well, except it doesn’t make sense if you listen to the stories of Jesus.
In fact, I wonder if that kind of thinking about God and Jesus is a little like the thief in today’s scripture reading, stealing God of God’s unfailing love and replacing it with unending judgment. I wonder if that kind of thinking about Jesus is like a bandit wearing the mask of a savior, but actually not saving anyone but keeping everyone afraid.
I don’t think of Jesus, or God, like that anymore.
Jesus says he’s the gate in today’s Gospel reading. The gate that allows the sheep to enter into the safety of the great pasture.
And Jesus says that the thieves and bandits of the world pretend to be a gate, but actually aren’t. And I wonder if, instead of the thieves and bandits being like, other gods from other religions or something, they’re not more like, well, money.
Like, especially in these fraught financial times, how much do we rely on our bank account to get us through? I know…it’s easy to do, especially with all this uncertainty. But let’s be honest, even in the boon years we relied a lot on those bank accounts to lead us into the good life, right? Monday seduces us, right?
That sounds a lot like a thief, coming to steal our contentedness and replacing it with fear and greed and all those things that keep us from sharing what we’ve been gifted with in this life.
Or maybe the bandit is our job title, our ability to climb the economic ladder, our never-ending search for the next step. It seduces us with promises of more security, more prestige, more, more, more! It wears the mask of success, but is just playing pretend because none of that satisfies. If it did, the ladder would have a top…but it doesn’t, does it?
Or maybe the thief is our politics, or our right answers in a world that is changing faster than it has ever changed before. I am amazed at the number of political, constitutional, environmental, and scientific scholars there are on social media (including the one writing this sermon)! We’re everywhere!
Or we just like to think we are…our right opinions are thieves that sometimes rob us of relationships with people who think differently than us, right? A good life without a variety of opinion isn’t good at all. It’s boring. And it’s fake.
Or maybe the bandit in this world is religions, itself, preaching a “pie in the sky” way of understanding this life, as if we’re all just meant to endure our life in order to get to some heaven lightyears away.
Except Jesus said that heaven was always close at hand, not far away. Belinda Carlisle, that pop singer, said something similar…I have to think she learned it from him.
Religion has taught us to follow the rules and everything will be alright. Except, that doesn’t always work, right? There are many times where I’ve followed the rules and gotten the short end of the stick. And, in fact, I think Jesus tells me to break the rules of the world sometimes, in order to stand with people for whom the rules don’t help!
Religion can be a bandit sometimes when it steals us of our ability to think critically, to love those who may not fit in a particular box, or gives us a black-and-white view of a world that is full, chock full, of shades of grey…
So, here’s the thing: I don’t think of God as a judge, watching the sheep, and Jesus as the shepherd keeping us on the straight and narrow.
You know what I think is the judge in this world? Well, the world. The world who is judging us, asking us constantly if we’re good enough, rich enough, smart enough. The world continually asks us to climb the economic ladder, it pits us against one another through the politics of division. The world is continually checking to make sure we’re religious enough, and faithful enough, and…
And the Good Shepherd, in this case, is the one who continues, like my niece, to hold our head high. The Good Shepherd is the one who continues to remind us of how loved we are, from the moment we were born. How carefully we’ve been kept, how keenly we’ve been raised, how tenderly we’ve been thought about even when we were off learning how to walk, bleating in the pastures of the world.
The Good Shepherd is the one who stands between us and the seduction of money, remind us that we don’t need to have all that, and can give a whole bunch of it up and still be just as great as we are now. The Good Shepherd is the one who stands between us and fame, fortune, the ladder climb, and yes, even a holier-than-thou religion that seduces us with promises of being better than everyone else.
You don’t need to be better than anyone else, Beloved. After all, Jesus was a homeless peasant who only had a dozen or so friends and tons of enemies. By those standards, most of us are doing alright…
The judge in this world is not God, it’s all that other stuff we too easily make into gods.
So, you might be wondering, in your little metaphor who is God, Pastor Brown?
God, Beloved, in this little metaphor, is my sister-in-law who, when the sheep doesn’t win first prize, hugs everyone, brings them in, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You didn’t need that ribbon, anyway.”
Because the love of a parent is like that, not like the judge.
So many gates in this world try to seduce the sheep, promising they’ll lead to the good life: money, power, prestige, right answers, right belief.
But, Beloved, they’re all thieves and bandits compared to the simple love of a God who says, “You’re enough.”
And if you can trust that loving seduction, friends, well…it’s a pretty good life.