“’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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’”
Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “’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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'”
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.
And my guess is that the metaphor of Jesus being our Good Shepherd is not a new concept for many of us. It’s one of the most popular images of Jesus that has been depicted in pictures, paintings, movies, and even popular songs.
And yet, I think as people who live in a large metropolitan city in the United States in 2020, it may be a little difficult for us to really understand what it means for Jesus to be our shepherd.
You see, while the images we mostly see of Jesus surrounded by cute fluffy sheep or holding sweet baby lambs on his shoulders are picturesque and seem to suggest the shepherd’s life was easy and pleasant, the life of a shepherd in First Century Palestine was anything but that.
One of the most important tasks of shepherds during that time was to provide their sheep with basic needs: food, water, a place for rest, and healthcare.
But this could be tricky at times. The terrain in ancient Palestine was predominantly rugged and rocky, and depending upon the time of year, green pastures for the sheep to graze in could be scarce. So the shepherd would have to move their sheep from pasture to pasture, finding enough food, water, and resting space for the sheep each day.
The other most important task of a shepherd was to protect and keep the sheep safe. Nighttime would be incredibly dangerous for the sheep. And so shepherds would take their sheep into a sheepfold – or a pen – for protection during the night.
A sheepfold out in the country would either be a natural cave, or it would consist of rocks piled up to form a circular or rectangular wall. And there would be a small opening for the sheep to enter and exit the cave or the rock wall structure. Since there was no door or gate, the shepherd would lie down across the small opening of the sheepfold at night, staying alert in order to protect the sheep from dangerous animals.
In these cases, the shepherd literally served as the gate.
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says in our Gospel this morning. “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
But watch out for bandits and thieves who climb over the wall of the sheepfold, Jesus warns. They choose not to enter through the gate, the place that seeks to protect and benefit all the sheep. Instead, thieves and bandits choose loopholes and act selfishly. They steal and destroy, as they make decisions that benefit only themselves, while putting the health and wellbeing of others at risk.
But I – Jesus says, came to bring abundant life to all.
Now, night was not the only time that was dangerous for the sheep. When shepherds took the sheep out during the daytime to find pasture, not only would they have to protect sheep from hazardous weather and predators, but they also had to keep track of all their sheep, who were often prone to wandering off and getting lost. And this could be tough when some of the larger flocks could consist of up to 50 sheep.
After each long day, the shepherd would call the sheep, and they would follow him back to the sheepfold for the night. He would stand at the gate, checking to see if all of the sheep were accounted for.
If he was a good shepherd, and one of the sheep was missing, he would know which one it was. He would call out for the lost sheep over and over again until the sheep heard him. She would know his voice and follow him back to the fold. As the sheep entered the sheepfold, the shepherd would inspect each one of them for injuries and would tend to them. And he would call each one of them by name.
Shepherds cared so much for each of their sheep, that they did whatever they could – even risking their own lives – to ensure every single sheep was provided for and was loved. Although the risks were great, shepherds accompanied their sheep as they had to journey through dangerous terrain, and while this journey was difficult, scary, and sometimes even painful, they never left their sheep alone.
I think this is the kind of Shepherd we need as we struggle through this uncertain Pandemic.
You see, Jesus does not only show up for us in the times that are good and comfortable and then leave us alone in times that are uncertain and hard. Rather, as the good shepherd, he meets us right here in the midst of the scary and painful Pandemic wilderness we have found ourselves lost in. And he accompanies us in every step that we take as we try to navigate our way through it all.
In our distress, Jesus hears our cries and tends to us in our pain. He knows us and understands what we are going through. And when we find ourselves lost, he calls out to us by name – over and over again, until we hear his voice and find our way back to him.
He grieves with us over our losses – no matter how big or little they might be. He sits with us in our distress, anxiety, and fear and offers us comfort and peace. He does not leave us abandoned or alone.
Jesus has come to bring us – all of us – abundant life.
And so in these times, this means that he gives us permission to find something that is life-giving and good for our souls daily and to not feel guilty about it. He does not judge us for sitting around in our pajamas for an entire day, or not being as productive as our friends or colleagues, or for just having a bad day (or 20 of them). He understands that we are all trying to figure out how we are to survive and find healing through this collective trauma that the world is in the midst of right now.
And this also means that Jesus calls us to be his vessels in the world, offering abundant life to our neighbors who have been denied it – both as we continue to shelter in place – as we are able – and as we figure out how to move forward after the shelter in place order is lifted.
Last week, author and activist Rev. Jim Wallis interviewed Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, Peggy Flanagan. During the interview, Gov. Flanagan made an important point for us – as a society – to remember.
She explained: “I have heard some people who have said that covid-19 is the great equalizer because anyone can contract the virus. But to be honest, I can’t think of a statement that is further from the truth. What this pandemic has done has truly laid bare the racial and social inequities that plague our country and our state.
And so… as we hear folks say, “Oh, we want to return to normal; wanna get back to normal” – normal wasn’t working. Normal wasn’t working for communities of color, for Native Americans, for folks in rural communities, for people in poverty. So I hope that we do not get back to normal. My hope is that we truly can figure out a way to center those who are most deeply impacted as we look to solutions to rebuild and to recover.”
Jesus – our Good Shepherd – loves all of his sheep and he gives special care to those who are suffering the most. And he calls his followers to do the same.
The words we hear him saying at the very end of John’s Gospel are not only words directed at Peter, but they words that are directed as us, as well: “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. “Then Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me? Then Take care of my sheep.”
“Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”
There are so many ways we can take care of Jesus’ flock – esp. those most at-risk – as we shelter in place right now:
Buying groceries for a neighbor who is immunocompromised, making face masks for our neighbors who need them, calling or sending cards to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one or who are feeling extra isolated right now. Decorating our windows with positive messages, calling or writing our legislators urging them to make equitable decisions, donating our resources to those in need.
And – while we prepare for what comes out of this time of sheltering in place, as Jen Bloomer said in her beautiful piece of artwork:
“May we grow back, not to what was, but instead towards what we can become.”