Thompson’s Sermon From May 15, 2011

May 17, 2011

Flocking to Jesus
John 10:1-10
“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

You can spend a lifetime in Arkansas without having any live encounters with sheep – unless of course you come to QQUMC on Palm Sunday, but if you spend any time in any church or Sunday School you become exposed to this image of shepherding. I don’t guess I’ve ever known an actual shepherd, but I’ve been reading the 23rd Psalm for years, so I think nothing of saying that the Lord is my shepherd. It’s interesting to think of how much the economy of Jesus’ day has influenced the language of our faith. It makes me wonder what the language be like if Jesus had been from Arkansas in the 20th century. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter Wal-Mart by way of the greeter is a thief and a bandit.

Such an image may not have made it through the centuries.

But this shepherding language has stuck, and it has created a curious situation for us. This is a case in which we are more familiar with the metaphor of shepherding than we are with the nature of the job. I become aware of this when I encounter texts like this where the terminology becomes more specific. I mean I didn’t know what a sheepfold was until I took a look at a commentary. I still don’t know what a Palestinian sheepfold actually looked like, but I’ve got a general concept, and it makes for an interesting image.

The way I understand it, back in those days in many villages there would be a large shelter where different shepherds would bring their flocks at night or for a period of time. Different flocks would mingle in the fold until their shepherd would come and call them together and they would follow him out to a pasture somewhere. These people generally raised the sheep for their wool, so they would have the animals for years, and there would be a lot of familiarity between the shepherd and his sheep. The sheep would know the voice of their shepherd, and they wouldn’t follow the song of anyone else. I can sort of imagine how this could work because of the way we are with our dogs. Dogs can tell who’s calling them, and there are some people who have dogs that will do what they’re told. I’ve never had such a dog, but I know people with very responsive dogs.

So in today’s scripture we have talk of a sheepfold with a gate and a gatekeeper who would know the shepherds and would allow them in or out. The people who came to rob the sheepfold would crawl over the wall and not enter by way of the gate and the gatekeeper.

Now one of the challenging things about this passage is that Jesus makes reference to himself as the shepherd in the first part of this passage and then he speaks of himself as the gate in the second part. Now this is ok because the main distinction he’s drawing in this passage is between himself and the dishonest scoundrels who try to break in and steal the sheep.

So we’ve got two images for Jesus but they work in the same way. In the first metaphor Jesus is the shepherd who is recognized by the gatekeeper (who I’m thinking represents God). Jesus is the shepherd who speaks in a way that is recognized by the sheep (who represent average people who are just trying to find their way), but they are often stolen by unscrupulous thieves (who represent the self-righteous religious authorities who were offended by Jesus. In the previous chapter Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath – which was an event that totally threatened and offended their religious sensibilities).

This is the first image, but according to John, there were some people who didn’t get the picture, so he drew them another one. He then described himself as the gate in this sheepfold. He said that you come in and out through him if you want to have abundant life, but those who enter and leave through other means are bandits and thieves. In this metaphor Jesus has himself playing a more definitive role. He lets the sheep in and out, but he doesn’t trust any of the shepherds. This image reinforces his lack of trust of the religious authorities who were so blind to the presence of God in his life and work.

So what we have here is some imagery that isn’t familiar to any of us, but we don’t have to understand the ancient Palestinian economy in order to understand the problem that Jesus was addressing. And what we have here is a clear case of religious conflict. Now there’s a novel concept – people at odds with each other over their concept of God. Who would ever have thought of such a thing?!!

The problem with this passage of scripture is not that it involves ancient imagery or a mixed metaphor. The problem with this is that it points to the ongoing reality of conflicting images of God. Jesus wasn’t harassed and ultimately killed by people who didn’t believe in God, the people he was identifying as thieves and bandits were highly religious people. These were the people who were highly educated and highly revered. They were the protectors of the traditions that were assumed to have come from God. The people Jesus pointed to and called thieves and robbers thought of themselves as being proper people.

I stumbled on to an amazing show the other night. It’s a series that currently showing on the public television show called American Experience. The series is about the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This particular show focused on the music of the movement, and I was really moved by the show. It was a powerful portrayal of the conflict, and it was a clear clash between religious convictions. Many of the people who were opposed to equality were not un-churched people. Now they utilized some godless thugs to do some of the dirty work, but to a large extent the people who sought to maintain white privilege thought they were serving God. They thought God intended for things to be the way they were and they fought to keep it that way.

I guess all of us have culturally generated images of God, but sometimes God gets lost in the culture.

I’m not that familiar with the way klansmen and other advocates of segregation used scripture to support their position, but I’m guessing they could find some. It certainly wasn’t hard for the civil rights workers and their preachers to find scripture to support their position or to find spiritual songs to incorporate into their movement, and this is what sustained them. I was struck by what this one minister, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyle, said about the music. He said the music reinforced the notion that they were going to win – not in an arrogant way, but he said, “If there is a God somewhere, and God’s word is true, then they were going to win.”

And they did win. Laws were changed – hearts were even changed in many cases, and this is a tribute to the righteousness of the cause. The cause was just, and the strategy was correct. They resisted ungodly laws in a godly manner. They engaged in non-violent resistance to violent policies, and it brought down a powerfully entrenched system. It cost the lives of many people who heard the voice of Jesus calling them to stand up for what they believed was true to the word of God, and it was the source of abundant life for many people.

That television show helped me understand the nature of the conflict that Jesus was addressing in this passage of scripture. And it reminded me that there has always been resistance to the real presence of God’s truth in this world – and often that resistance comes from people who feel like they’re well acquainted with God. This passage of scripture serves as a source of encouragement to righteous people who are thrown aside by others who define God in a different way.

We currently are not unfamiliar with religious conflict, and I’m not talking about the friction that is often hyped between the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims and the various other religious franchises around the world. I’m not saying that such conflict doesn’t exist, and the nature of that conflict is similarly generated by culturally created images of God, but anyone who has been involved in church operations on whatever level has been touched by the kind of conflict that can exist between followers of the same Lord.

This is a tough thing, and while Jesus was clear about the difference between the sheep and the bandits our job is not to do any of that kind of labeling. Our job is to be diligent in our pursuit of that which is true to God, and when we come to positions of clarity about what we believe it’s important to stand firm in a loving way. There’s a vast difference between the pursuit of righteousness and the exercise of self-righteousness.

We’ve got some struggles going on in our very-own denomination. All of the essential numbers are shrinking within the UMC in our country, and we’re trying to figure out how to function in a more effective manner. There are some struggles going on in regard to how we organize, and I dare say these struggles reflect differences in images of God and beliefs about God. I think the amount of money we choose to spend in various ways reflects what we believe to be true about God.

But the largest struggle we have going on in the United Methodist Church right now is what we believe to be true about the nature of human sexuality. I appreciate the way in which this congregation has made a clear statement about our belief that God creates people in a variety of legitimate ways in regard to sexual orientation. We have said we don’t need to exclude anyone from full participation in the church based upon the way in which their gender manifests itself, and I believe this to be God’s own truth.

Policies within our Book of Discipline don’t currently reflect this understanding, and I believe this is something that needs to get fixed. I’m not ready to call the people who seek to maintain current policy bandits and thieves because as I say, I’m not as clear about things as Jesus was (or perhaps because I’m not willing to get crucified), but I do believe I hear Jesus calling us in that direction.

I guess I’m strangely comforted by this passage of scripture. It reminds me that conflict happens in religious organizations. Things get broken within the church, but that’s no reason to give up on it. The same God that often gets used in distorted ways is at work in the hearts of people who are struggling to get it right.

We may not know much about the business of raising sheep, but I’m pretty sure that if we’ll pay attention we’ll hear the sound of our shepherd’s song, and he’ll lead us in and out of the gate that leads us into righteous and abundant life. And thanks be to God for this!


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