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The Shepherd and the Gate

A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

on 30 April 2023 Easter 4; Year A

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is one of my favorite liturgical occasions. I know that I am not alone in this sentiment because this Eastertide Sunday is referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. With its pastoral tones of belonging and being cared for, only but the most cynically wounded among us ignores its call to our hearts and souls. Throw in the emotive music that surrounds this day (especially the Celtic tunes like our opening hymn), and then throw in the lyrics of the 23rd Psalm, the prospect of lumps in the throat and double-clutched swallowing run high. This can be a very powerful, emotional day, both in terms of our deep longings being touched or in our experience of those longings being painfully revisited.

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: So goes the initial phrase of the Collect of [this] Day. For me, the mere sound of these words has the capacity to trigger the memories of my mother who taught me night after night to say my bedtime prayers, the opening words of which are: Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me; bless thy little child tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me; keep me safe ‘til morning’s light. After this first petition, my bedtime prayers continued with the “God-blesses”: “God bless Mommy and Daddy; Grandma and Grandpa; all my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends”. In due time, I sequentially added, “God bless Chris, David, and Peter” -- my emergent brothers. The point is that every night, without fail, this bedtime prayer provided the context of my going to sleep at night – safe and sound.

So it is that I cannot think of this prayer or its “Good Shepherd” imagery without thinking of my mother and how her steadfastness influenced me. That this same prayer was said and taught and used with our three children and now by our four grandchildren – this speaks to a continuity of belonging and caring and stabilizing faith and hope.

Evidently and more to the point, what this bedtime prayer conveyed and represented was not something I (fortunately) outgrew. For on one night’s occasion, as an imminently graduating college senior, anxiously tossing and turning in my bed over what I would be “when I grew up”, I suddenly (and embarrassingly), found myself compelled to kneel beside my bed, furtively praying this childhood prayer, and – alas – going soundly to sleep.

Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads…Is it God; or indigestion?

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people.

Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me…

Beyond the emotional power of belonging to the “Shepherd of our souls” – especially beyond the wrenching memory of some of whom were rejected or abused in the Name of the “Shepherd of our souls”, I want to ask a question. Why – why is Jesus the “Good Shepherd”? What makes Jesus the “Shepherd of our souls”? I’d like to respond to this query in a way that is not able to be captured by a Hallmark greeting card but rather by paying heartfelt attention to what this day’s gospel indicates.

Most of us have no direct experience of sheep or what is entailed in shepherding them. As such, it is easy for us to wax sentimental – or cynically -- about these pastoral issues of belonging and being cared for, to the extent that such emotional expressions often camouflage even the 23rd Psalm’s message. For example, we all like the fact that the shepherd guides us to green pastures and still waters, which makes it easy for us to miss the fact that sheep need “still water” because they are deathly afraid of running water; or that the shepherd throws a feast for those in the flock, yet surrounding the festival table are all those who trouble us. The point I think is that this belonging and being cared for is more complicated and demanding than appears at first sight.

The pastoral perspective of belonging to and being cared for by the “Good Shepherd” surely is part of the deal of being “God’s people and the sheep of his pasture” [Ps. 95]; and nowhere is the complexity of what this means more visible – and familiar to us Episcopalians -- than in the “stick” that bishops carry in formal situations. The “stick” is almost always shaped like a shepherd’s staff, sometimes referred to as a shepherd’s crook. The public and symbolic sign of the episcopal office has a welcoming hook at the top end, representing rescue and safety, but the bottom end is blunt and unadorned. We all like the rescuing hook end that can pluck us from danger; but we balk when the other end – the blunt end – is used to prod us “sheep” into action. Truth to tell, the hard paradox is this: Who among us immediately says, “thank you” when we are prodded toward new life? O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people…

Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me…

So, again, what makes Jesus the “Good Shepherd”? As I have indicated, the answer is not necessarily as simple as it might sound. Case in point, Jesus’ own disciples, hearing our Lord teach the crowd about who he is and what he has to do with the God-life, missed the point of his sheep/shepherd imagery. It went right over their heads. They didn’t get it. (Then again, remember that they were fishermen in need of retooling!). So to break through the communications logjam, Jesus shifts gears and uses a more concrete shepherd metaphor, saying: “I am the gate for the sheep.”

I am not sure why this second image seemed to work, but evidently it was not a secret that one reason shepherding was demanding – even dangerous work -- was that at night a shepherd would often gather his flock in a corral; and lying down on the ground, use himself as the gate for the night. Sleeping thusly, the shepherd would lie down to sleep with one eye open, across the sheep pen opening, placing his prone body between his sheep and the larger (and potentially dangerous) outside world. Yes, there were “thieves and bandits” out there, as well as other predators lurking in the dark. The shepherd, doing his job , put himself between the threat and the danger by being the human “gate” – no matter what.

[Jesus said,] “Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good – a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate.” [The Message: John 10:1-2]

I am the gate… [John 10:7 NRSV]

Why is Jesus the “Good Shepherd”? He keeps the gate. He is the gate. My own take on this is that Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” for the sole reason that he is not only the “gate”; but also that ultimate “gate” is death; and it is this ultimate “gate” that God’s shepherd, Jesus, commands. All the “wanna-be” shepherds and all the “messianic pretenders” try to hop the fence, but this is the reason they are liars and frauds. The hard, unavoidable truth is that death cannot be hopped over or snuck through. Only Jesus – God’s own shepherd -- crucified and risen, has faced the demands of the gate and made them his own – because of which, (as Jesus says) if anyone enters by me, [that one] will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. [10:9]

You know the truth. We all do. If we could, we’d gladly “hop the fence” or climb through the railings as shortcuts to the pasture; but it doesn’t work like that; does it? But we still try; don’t we?

We live in a time when the flock is very nervous, fretful, and looking for a way out of all the threat of chaos and its attendant uncertainty. Without the sheep pen’s fence, without the presence of the shepherd, sheep will try to escape in the face of fear, not to mention death. In our day, we have too many “thieves and bandits” who claim to be “good shepherds”. There are many “messianic pretenders” who claim to be willing and able to tend the flock, but who are themselves predators of the very sheep they call and solemnly pledge to “save”. Yet, the truth is that there is only one “Good Shepherd”: the one who not only is at the gate that leads to the “still waters” and the “green pastures”; but having pushed the gate open with his own life and having bridged its dividing separation, the “Good Shepherd” – Jesus -- leads us to new life. In a fundamental sense, the parish meeting that follows this liturgy is meant to regather us – face to face – as St. Philip’s flock and to remind us that we belong and that we are cared for here. Yet, this gathering and its reminding us of who we are and Whose we are is also for the purpose of re-equipping ourselves to shepherd the world around us in the Name of the “Good Shepherd”.

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of

your people… Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me…

Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.

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