As most of you know, I’ve been living on Catherine Foote’s sheep farm at least part time since 2018, and I’m currently there fulltime. Catherine is a good shepherd. When coyotes dig under the fence and kill one of her sheep, we patch the fence and take other precautions to make sure that doesn’t keep happening. We are in lambing season right now. Four ewes had a prolonged slumber party in the rams’ pen some months back. As the ewes’ time to deliver drew near, Catherine started checking on them not only during the day, when they’re out in the pasture, but also several times each night. She traipses down to the barn, where they stay safe and sheltered at night. She shines a flashlight, checks for any ewe in distress. Mostly she gets blank stares in return, sheep lying down, chewing their cud or sleeping. They look at her like “What? It’s 2:00 in the morning!” But if a ewe is struggling, Catherine is ready to help, whether that’s at 1:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning. So far two of the ewes have delivered—without Catherine’s help—and we have two little girl lambs who are healthy and full of frolics.
This passage from John talks about the sheep being brought into the sheepfold at night for protection from thieves and bandits—and, no doubt, predators such as coyotes. And then in the day the good shepherd calls the sheep out through the gate and leads them to good pasture. The good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, fed, and protected.
Jesus depicts this lovely image of the good shepherd caring for the flock. And the writer says that the listeners “did not understand what he was saying to them.” Blank stares, rather like the sheep in the barn at 2am. Huh?
So he tries again, and he actually makes things more confusing because he shifts the metaphor. Instead of being the good shepherd, Jesus is now the gate. He says, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.” As if sheep listen to a gate?
But his point is that he is the means for reaching that good pasture. Whether he is the shepherd leading the sheep there, or the gate through which they pass, Jesus will lead them to a life steeped in God’s presence. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:9b-10).
Some read this passage as saying that Jesus is the only good shepherd, or the only gate leading to God. And in the context in which this text was written, that may have been the intent; I don’t know. But we know there are many good paths to God. There are many devout Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others who center their lives in God and find life abundant through the path they have taken to reach God.
The point of this passage is less about Jesus being the only shepherd and more about sheep following the good shepherd to abundant life rather than falling prey to thieves and predators who destroy life. Coyotes, thieves, and bandits may come into the barn or the sheepfold or the pasture, but they are not coming for the benefit of the sheep.
Jesus is warning against those who would lead the sheep astray from God. Those who say they have all the answers, those who just want your money, those who make false promises that they cannot possibly fulfil. For Jesus, one example of those leading people astray were the scribes, priests, and Pharisees.
It’s not about saying there is only one path to God. It is about saying that there are plenty who promise to fulfill you but in fact will lead you astray or even destroy you. If you seek love, justice, peace, forgiveness, are you going to follow Jesus or the Pharisees to find your God? Both are claiming to lead to the same God. Which one is your shepherd?
If you seek meaning, fulfilment, inner peace, a sense of call in your life, do you follow Jesus the good shepherd to lead you to God? Or do you pursue instead the gods of money, fame, and security? If you want to feel good about yourself and your life, do you follow God? Or do you follow the gods of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, sex addiction, food addiction? If you seek to conquer your fears, do you follow the god of guns and ammunition and live in a fortress? Or ally with the God who will ride all the ups and downs with you, who will drive out hate with love, who will lead us to live in a flock with sheep of all colors, shapes, and sizes?
It’s not about whether you reach God through Judaism, or Islam, or Christianity, or other faith traditions. It’s about whether you reach God or give yourself over to some other shepherd who will lead you astray.
Remember what God we are talking about. God is the ultimate shepherd, the one to whom Jesus leads us. This is the God of the Hebrew scriptures in Psalm 23:
God is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures;
God leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul.
God leads me in right paths for the sake of the Holy name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff—
They comfort me.
The God of the 23rd Psalm is the God Jesus is talking about. Jesus is the shepherd—or the gate—leading us to that God. Not the god of money, power, security, or false fulfilment. The God who restores our soul. The God who accompanies us through the darkest valleys, who helps us face evil, who protects us like a good shepherd.
What does it look like to live fully in the hands of that good shepherd God? In the passage we read from Acts, we see Jesus’ flock, his disciples, starting to reorganize after his crucifixion and resurrection. He is no longer physically present in their midst, but his spirit and teachings and memory continue to guide them to the good shepherd.
They live together as a flock, sharing food, selling whatever assets they have and contributing them to the common funds. They are living in the first heady days of this community, where anything and everything seems possible. They worship together, study together, break bread together.
There is great power for transformation in this model: a small group living fully in God’s loving presence, unstoppable, passionate about love, justice, peace, and hope. I am recalling that the shepherd calls her sheep by name. God calls each of us by name, and in a congregation or flock the size of Prospect, we call each other by name as well. That is powerful. Our small flock, powered by God’s good pasture, God’s abundant life—we can make a difference. We can change the world.
One of the benefits of this time of pandemic is the love you see coming forward. People making masks, dropping things off on porches of those who need them, visiting others just by driving by and waving, or saying hello from the sidewalk. Someone decorated my neighbors’ driveway and street: “Happy 45th Anniversary!” They can’t gather in person, but the message and the love come through anyway.
On a societal scale, perhaps we are reminded once again that all of us are part of God’s flock. A front-page story in the Seattle Times this morning talked about how housing the homeless has taken on new compassion and urgency in this time when we need to keep the whole flock as healthy as possible. It doesn’t matter what road we take to God. We are all God’s flock.
So in this time of retreating into our sheepfolds and barns, our safe spaces, how do we stay centered in that divine good shepherd? May we recognize the thieves and bandits, those who would lead us astray or destroy us, like a dangerous virus, or those in power who care more for political gain than for the lives of the people they are supposed to lead. Let us share what we have, that all may have life and have it abundantly.
We’ve had images of Jesus as good shepherd and as a gate, and of God as the ultimate shepherd. I close with one more sheep-based image of God, this time as a ewe with a newborn lamb. The lamb in this video was born on Friday morning less than an hour earlier and now is tottering to her feet for the first time. Mama is right there with her, licking all the muck of birth off her, supporting her, and giving out these very contented grunts. And eventually the lamb starts to answer, in her tiny voice. They’re talking to each other, bonding. The lamb wants to nurse but doesn’t know where to do it. She checks out Mama’s shoulder and neck. Mama steers her gently back to the udder. So tender, so loving, so supportive. When we barely know how to stand, this is the God who walks with us, supporting, nudging, talking to us, loving us, through anything and everything. May we never lose touch with that God. Amen.