Last week, I had the blessing and privilege to preach at a memorial service for a long time member at the MPLS campus. Lu joined Bethlehem in the 1940’s. She celebrated her 96th birthday about a month ago. I visited with her and her son at that time. She was a dynamite woman, a trailblazer. Her family described her as ahead of her time. She was the primary wage earner for her family, working her way through multiple degrees to a prestigious position in one of our local hospitals. 5 years ago, the family began to see signs of dementia and it progressed quickly. When I last saw her, she was pleasant and very quiet but she wasn’t connecting with our conversation. She didn’t remember who I was. Her son shared that her ability to recognize him was inconsistent. He asked if we could celebrate Holy Communion. So I set it up and then started our worship with reading Psalm 23.
Lu’s demeanor changed immediately. As I began to read “The Lord is my shepherd” she sat up a little taller and leaned in to hear the words. As I continued reading, she smiled and then–a twinkle in her eye. She connected with the image of her Lord as shepherd. There was a renewed awareness for her in that moment. The familiar words seemed to offer her comfort.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd” and even those of us entrenched in the city unfamiliar with sheep and shepherds find comfort in these familiar words. The shepherd cares for his sheep: As the good shepherd, Jesus goes before us; Jesus leads and guides us; Jesus protects and saves us. This is who God is, revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus also says,”I am the gate” but we don’t often highlight this part of his discourse. It’s a little trickier. The metaphor doesn’t illicit the same kind of emotional response. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about a “Gate” or a “Gatekeeper”. A gate or gatekeeper is a barrier– They keep things separate—with some on the inside and others on the outside. Preaching professor Anna Carter Florence writes that she doesn’t like this image for Jesus because it’s just too tempting for the rest of us to go and do likewise, too tempting for us to see our role as the gate or gatekeeper in matters of faith and right belief. But that’s not who we are in this story. We are the sheep. And in that role, our only job is to listen to the shepherd, to follow and to be on the move–between pen and pasture–going out and coming in again and again.
There are 2 things I want to draw your attention to in these words from Jesus: 1) There’s a rhythm to living a life of faith—the sheepfold is both gathered in and sent out. Movement is what abundant life looks like. You don’t stand still in faith—faith keeps you on the move. We gather and faith is fed in water, word and community and we go back out into the world with faith to heal, love and care for our neighbor, in actions and in words. 2) The focus is on relationship. “The sheep will follow the Shepherd because they know his voice…I know my own” Jesus says “and my own know me”. Being part of this sheepfold is about being known and loved and cared for. This is more important than rules or right practice.
And that’s the point that Jesus is making here. His words come on the heels of a dispute. He had healed a blind man on the Sabbath – breaking a sacred law. Those considered leaders in the faith call Jesus on it and Jesus calls them out on their narrow understanding of being in relationship with God. They think they’ve got God and religion figured out—adhere to the law and you’re good. We’re drawn to the same sense of order. We like the lines to be clear. Except that’s not how it works. God is doing a new thing. Jesus now fulfills the law and through Jesus, a relationship with God is what matters most. This news changes everything. It’s radical stuff. So to help people better understand, Jesus paints a picture, describing life with God.
He uses imagery that’s familiar to the people. But it’s not a scene that they’ve ever imagined. A Shepherd to the OT ears was royalty—one who would rule with power and authority over the people. But in this story of the good shepherd, Jesus turns that understanding on its head. His power and authority is in giving himself for the people—in laying down his life for the sheep and in taking it up again.
Jesus describes two kinds of shepherds: the good shepherd who owns the sheep and takes care of them when the wolves come and scatter the flock—and the hired hand, who is brought in under contract to take care of the sheep but doesn’t own them. This shepherd runs when the wolves attack the flock. The good shepherd stays and never abandons his sheep. The good shepherd is intimately connected to the sheep because he owns them.
Now initially this kind of language can make our independent spirits shudder—owns us? None of us wants to be owned. But Jesus turns our understanding of what it means to be owned upside down and it’s what makes all the difference for the sheep—a difference between despair and hope, death and life.
I have something to show you. Maybe it’ll be helpful for understanding “own” as Jesus describes it.
Any guesses what this is? If you’re from the MPLS campus, I have shown this to you before. I’ve been surprised at how many different ways I can use this to help make a point. So…any guesses? I’m fairly confident that if it were sitting on a shelf in a store—that it wouldn’t capture anyone’s attention. Would you say it’s “art”? Would you say its “quality art”?
I imagine we could debate this for some time. But we’re not going to do that. Because the debate wouldn’t change my mind. You see, I made this when I was around 8-10 years old. Believe it or not, it is meaningful to me. I am intimately connected to this because I made it. It has a back story and I know it’s story! I remember imagining it, and the joy in creating it. I poured my heart into this….the very first thing I ever made on a potter’s wheel. Now I realize—it may not be beautiful and meaningful to you. But that doesn’t take away from the meaning it has for me. It is what it is and its meaning and beauty exist for me because I made it. The old adage may be true, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the greater truth is that beauty is in the eye of the creator.
We are sheep. We’ve got issues—not always the sharpest tool in the shed, repeating the same old mistakes, and things don’t always smell so good. But we are sheep owned by the good shepherd. Our beauty, our meaning, our purpose is defined by the one who imagined and created us. Beauty is in the eye of the Creator. You are forever intimately connected to God because of who God is and what God has done through Jesus Christ. The good shepherd owns you and that’s good news, life-giving news.
You belong to the Good Shepherd who never abandons you. Never leaves you. Watches over you. Cares for you and lays down his life for you. In these few verses of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that the good shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep—not just once but five times! 5!!! Seems Jesus wants to make sure we know the depth of his love. No one forces him to do this. He has the power to lay down his life, just as he has the power to take his life up and to live.
Jesus lays down his life for the sheep—for me and for you. Not because of what you look like or accomplish but because the Lord imagined you, created you, owns you and loves you. No one and nothing can change that. You are a beloved child of God.
As Pastor Meta already mentioned, as part of worship you’re invited to receive an anointing. Nothing fancy. It won’t capture any one’s attention—except hopefully yours—that in receiving the sign of the cross you hear God’s good news for you: that you belong and you are loved. Lean into this promise and then listen–because God calls you into the rhythm of abundant life—to care, to love, to heal, to show up that others might encounter God’s love through you. Amen.
With thanks to Anna Carter Florence in Preaching Year A Lectionary (gate) and Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Preaching Life (being owned).