- Parish House
Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter
Year A, John 10.1-10
The Rev. Scott Walters
The trouble with sheep, I’m told, is that they’re not very smart. And so one or two might just wander off from a perfectly good flock if you let them. You need a proper gate to keep that from happening. You need a proper gate because getting loose can feel like getting free for a sheep. And real freedom is nothing like that at all.
I know this, because I did quite a bit of scholarly research on the subject of sheep and gates this week. Which led me to a bunch of really cool YouTube videos of sheep going through gates. If you’ve ever googled “sheep going through gates” you know exactly what I mean.
But maybe some of you haven’t done that. So let me go ahead and describe an internet sheep video in a sermon. How could that not be a good idea?
The videos were taken from drones. I can’t say from how high. But the sheep look like grains of living rice. Border collies are involved. But there are so few in comparison to the sheep that they barely register. What’s mesmerizing is to watch the swirls of energy moving through the herd as a few begin to pour through a gate and into the next pasture. The herd is liquid. Or sand through an hourglass. There is some kind of energy in the constriction that is the gate that runs through the whole herd.
The individual sheep at the back have no idea what’s going on. I think “not knowing what’s going on” is implicit in the definition of a sheep. But they don’t know that there’s a gate and another pasture to which they’re being drawn. In fact, sometimes whatever is coursing through the animals sends some of them in the opposite direction, until eventually they are turned back into the flow of the flock and through the little gate.
I tell you, watching these videos are not only slightly more engaging than the average commentary on the gospel of John. Watching them is to see what looks for all the world like the movement of a spirit through the animals.
But one of the videos was different. You had to watch closely, because the same general sheep flow effect was happening. The same muzak strained to be inspiring in the background, not adding to the experience at all. But in this clip, a single sheep was running along a barely perceptible fence on the right side. She was cut off from the rest of the herd. She’d somehow gotten herself through the wrong gate. And she wasn’t free at all. She was alone. She was lost.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” for reasons that may seem obvious. But they’re not so obvious if you actually read the gospel lesson for today with a little care. Jesus doesn’t say he’s the good shepherd. He says he’s the gate.
I know. Surely Jesus knew that nobody would want to depict him as a gate in a stained glass window. And, to be fair, in the next verse of John 10, Jesus does say he’s the Good Shepherd. It’s not wrong to say he is. But today, let’s take him at his word and wonder what it might mean for Jesus to be a gate. A gate through which we, his sheep, his flock, come and go.
Between sheep videos I had also been reading an essay on freedom by a Dominican philosopher and theologian named Herbert McCabe. So, in what follows, chances are that anything insightful comes from him. Anything lame or heretical should probably be blamed on me or YouTube.
Herbert McCabe reminds us that when Jesus preaches for the first time over in the gospel of Luke, he proclaims the year of Jubilee. Quoting Isaiah, he says he’s come to “proclaim release to the captives…, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Freedom was essential to Jesus’s ministry.
But none of this language was about freedom and liberation in vague or general terms. It was rooted in Jubilee, which goes back beyond Isaiah to the book of Leviticus. Jesus was saying that the freedom of Jubilee that the Law was meant to make possible for the people of God was coming to full fruition in him, in his ministry, in his presence.
Historically, Israel never practiced Jubilee. Every 50th year they did not let people return to their ancestral lands, regardless of who had bought or sold or stolen them in the meantime, as Jubilee required. They didn’t free everyone enslaved by debt, as Jubilee required. They never managed to step fully into the freedom the Law was set up to provide.
But Jubilee remained the image or the dream of what it would look like if people lived with one another truly as the people of God. Jubilee was about what human relationships in society would look like if they were according to God’s values rather than ours.
Jesus comes and says, “Today this scripture, the freedom of Jubilee, is fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s not surprising at all, then, that after his death his first followers were forming that radical society in Acts in which everything was shared and no one went without.
Freedom goes deep in the Judeo-Christian story. But lately we seem to have gotten our ideals of freedom very wrong. Our notions of freedom often look nothing like the freedom of Torah, the freedom of Jubilee, the freedom of Jesus’s teaching.
When you and I hear about freedom today it’s almost always couched in personal terms. It’s about what an individual is allowed to do. Freedom is freedom from other people, not with other people. It’s the right to be left alone. To spend our money as we want. To speak or act as we please.
But Christians and Jews are formed by a story that says to be left alone is to be the sheep that has wandered away. Which isn’t freedom at all. It’s alienation. It’s isolation. Ultimately, it’s a kind of death. True freedom, Jubilee freedom, Christian freedom is to be bound to other people and to move through life with them in liberating ways.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Abundant life. That’s the goal of Jubilee. Not heaven. Not power. Not wealth. Not even virtue, in itself. Abundant life is the gift. And this life is somehow available to you and me when our life together and with other human beings is about coming and going through the gate that is Jesus. Freedom is about being bound together, and released together, and not being scattered by the thieves and bandits who jump the wall.
It’s fairly obvious, but maybe it needs to be said, that a gate that’s always shut is effectively a wall. Jesus is not a wall because the Christian life is never about just hunkering down with our own. Herds that just stay fearfully put will eat up and trample down their pasture until there’s nothing left to feed on.
Coming and going from one pasture to another, is how a flock stays healthy and strong. And so knowing when it’s the Spirit moving through our community and sending us through the Jesus gate rather than a bandit jumping the wall and scattering us in fear is essential to discerning the abundant life for which we were made.
So…many if not most of you know, this wasn’t just another week at Christ Church. I mean, the scaffolding came down. That’s nice, isn’t it?
It wasn’t just another week in the life of Scott and Ardelle either. It wasn’t just another week for Patricia and James. On Tuesday a letter went out letting you know that I’ve accepted a call to Calvary Church in downtown Memphis. This is not goodbye, by the way. This is just the next sermon after that happened, after we finally got to tell you what’s going on with us.
But telling you that we are moving through a gate, over a bridge, and into another pasture, colored my reading of our gospel lesson in deeper ways than the best sheep gate video ever could. Over the past few months it became increasingly clear that to be faithful and fully alive as Christians is to trust what’s flowing into you and through you as you live in Christian community.
That may sound strange, since Ardelle and I have had to keep the possibility of our leaving a secret from you. But the necessary keeping of that secret only made it more intensely clear how interconnected and interdependent our lives are with yours. It was exhausting to keep just this one detail of our lives from you, because being Jesus’s people isn’t about simply being true to ourselves. It’s about being true to one another. It’s about being true to the stranger. It’s about being true to people a pasture over that some unexpected energy in this flock seems to be sending us toward.
Boundaries may well be important in a healthy Christian life, but God nourishes us by what we let go of into each other’s lives. It’s about what we receive, not what we keep walled up and protected inside us. Jesus is the blessed breach in our walls in so many ways, it seems.
But let me tell you why the past few days have confirmed to me that we’re all moving through a Jesus gate and not being scattered by a bandit or wandering into a pasture cut off from the sustaining love of the herd.
It was no surprise that our announcement was met with a little surprise and some sadness. Which is good. We didn’t want to hurt you. But we hoped your response would be something more than, “Yeah, whatever.”
But almost immediately we saw your surprise and sadness become mixed up with so much joy and strength and perspective. A few of you said, “Give me a minute. I’ll be happy for you eventually.” But even that was just an honest way to include us in what you’re experiencing right now. What we saw was the deep spiritual strength and health and life of this flock with whom we’ve been feeding for twelve remarkable years. What we saw is that the love we have lived by is alive and well in you.
This is a Jesus gate. We’re not getting loose from you. We’re still learning what it means to be free with you. Learning to live the abundant life God makes possible when we live among people of true Jubilee.
Freedom is something we have to receive, says Herbert McCabe, as a gift from other people. It’s something we can’t go get for ourselves. All we can get for ourselves is lost. So before you imagine Jesus as your good shepherd, think of him first as a gate, as a sacred opening in one of your walls, where the people around you can reach you and set you free. A gap in your defenses where your life and your love can set someone else beautifully free as well.