Shepherd

The gate of the sheepfold

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter’s Gospel reading is from the 10th chapter of John about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This year we get the first part, and a lot of it is about the sheepfold and its gate.  The image is of a pen built out on the hillside in the area where the sheep are grazing—usually in ancient Palestine, this was a stone enclosure. Such pens were often shared between the owners of different flocks of sheep.

That’s not much different from when my mother was in college and she spent a summer as a cowboy, working on the range with the cattle on her father’s grazing lease. A number of small ranchers had cattle in that area. Each rancher provided certain resources that were shared, the cattle went where they wanted, ate grass and drank water where they were available, and the cowboys sorted the cows out by their brands, and branded the calves who were at their mothers’ sides. In the sheepfold, the shepherd knew the individual sheep by sight, and had a name for each one.

We are used to sheepherders herding the sheep from behind, often using dogs to push them toward where they should go. However, one of my professors was meditating out in the wilderness in Palestine one day, when she heard a young man singing. When she looked up, she saw a shepherd walking in front of his flock and the sheep were following to their pasture.

So that’s the image that Jesus is using. The shepherd knows the sheep and calls them. They follow him because they trust him, and they know that it is him that they trust, because they know his voice.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about being the Model Shepherd, right after the episode where he healed the man who was born blind. That man who had always been blind could see and believe in who Jesus was, but the religious rulers could not see, and tried to bully him into denouncing Jesus. So Jesus tells the people what it takes to authentically lead God’s people. The true shepherd doesn’t burst in by force and seize the sheep—that is what a robber does.  The true shepherd approaches gently, respectfully and knows his own sheep, and they trust him and follow him.

In the New Testament it’s clear that there were many charlatans about, claiming to have the real word, claiming to be Christ or his representative. Sort of like now. Religious frauds abounded and the church was on its guard about those who would use religion to manipulate people and serve themselves, to seize power over others for exploitation rather than the compassion of Christ. And at this moment, Jesus was in a conflict with religious leaders who were acting out of their own fear, and distorting the law by narrowing it and interfering with its life-giving aspects.

So Jesus talks about being a Shepherd. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep.” That might refer to something like what we think of a gate or moveable wall for an enclosure. Or it might mean situations where shepherds would take their turns sleeping across the narrow opening of the sheepfold wall. Animals are unlikely to walk over a human being, and if they did he would wake up and rectify the problem.  In any case, Jesus says he is the gate of the sheep, in other words, he keeps the flock secure, and is there to stop those who would do violence to the flock.

“Whoever enters …will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus guards his community by compassion—he gives life and vitality—the green pasture, the sign of life, comfort and nourishment. That life is the life of his Resurrection—in this Easter season we know that the Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep, has come to give us life. It is not the priest, or any other earthly leader that is the Shepherd, it is Jesus and it is in the love of Jesus that we know that we are nurtured in that life of the resurrection.

Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles describes the church in those days shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles knew the resurrection and lived without fear of this world, they trusted Jesus and the demons melted away. It says of the people,

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common…

We should not exaggerate or romanticize this picture, or assume all early Christians lived in a commune. What I read here are two things, things we see as well in our own day, and even right here: a community of trust and generosity. They would gather, watch out for one another, and live in generosity of spirit, knowing and serving one another’s needs. And the other is the power of Christ’s teaching—the one who died on the cross and was raised by God from the dead, has taken away the power of fear, and of the demons of our collective fear, selfishness and anger. Marvelous things happen when people are no longer fearful—as it says, “Awe came over everyone.”

They heard the voice of the Shepherd and they followed him. And as we follow him: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them

A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Christmas Eve December 24, 2014

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.

On Sunday, we saw a bunch of wonderful angels here. Those angels are Christians born in this century, people who will be following and proclaiming Christ, and teaching all of us as we live together into the future. They were teaching us by dressing up in angel costumes, but seeing a real angel, sent from God, that’s a rare thing indeed, and a very extraordinary experience. Before Gabriel showed up, Mary had never seen an angel. And you can bet that none of these shepherds had ever seen an angel before that night.

When I was a kid, I thought that shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in a pretty rural area, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the river, where nothing could get to the sheep and they took care of the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders. Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows.

A Sheepherder's camp

A Sheepherder’s camp

You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.

A sheepherder with his band of sheep

A sheepherder with his band of sheep

It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.
So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.

And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”

The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.

Our city and our country have been living in a lot of fear and anger, which are a result of those powers, powers which embody the fears of losing power and privilege, fears of change. Those powers, sometimes called intolerance, sometimes racism, sometimes simply the inability to see beyond our own narrow self-interest, those powers try to reach out with power and force to enforce their fear on everyone else.
But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.

And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.

Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.