Of Sheep and Shepherds
Theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. You might be most familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first book in the series, but the whole series of seven stories is really wonderful. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. As a result of a complicated series of events, Aslan sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. The fruit will become a tree which will protect Narnia. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, which is surrounded by a wall, he sees the witch climbing over the walls to steal and eat the fruit of the tree Aslan has sent him to find. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. The witch could have too, but she chose to enter instead in the way of a thief. When Diggory enters the garden himself, he sees a sign at the entrance that reads, “Come in by the gold gates or not at all, Take of my fruit for others or forebear, for those who steal or those who climb my wall shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and because the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. In fact, the fruit she eats gives her unnaturally long life. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If her motives had been selfless instead of self-serving, if she had just gone in through the gate…
Our gospel lesson today brings us another story about gates and who enters by the gate, and who chooses to climb over walls. Our text from John takes place after Jesus had healed the man born blind. We talked about this passage very briefly during Lent. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. But rather than being happy about this turn of events, the religious leaders call the man in for questioning, and want to find someone to blame, rather than someone to celebrate. The passage ends with Jesus saying that it is the religious leaders, not the man who was healed, who are truly blind.
We move straight from those words from Jesus to this passage, John 10, where Jesus describes a sheepfold in some detail. At focus in this long metaphor is who is in charge of the sheep, who really has the best interest of the flock at heart. Jesus says, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” In contrast, the shepherd is known to the sheep, known to the gatekeeper. The shepherd knows the sheep, calls them by name, and the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd, and follow where the shepherd leads. Jesus says that the sheep won’t follow the voice of a stranger.
We read that Jesus’s audience doesn’t get what he’s saying, and so he continues, describing himself as the gate for the sheep. Again, Jesus says, others who try to call to the sheep are thieves and bandits, but through Jesus, through his voice, there is salvation, pasture. Jesus lays out a clear contrast: The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s my favorite verse in the Bible: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The text continues on after the close of our passage, with Jesus mixing his metaphors a bit, describing himself as the Good Shepherd, one willing to lay down his life for the sheep in the flock, one who knows his sheep, and is known by the sheep, but the themes are similar. When he’s done speaking, we read that his audience was “divided” because of his words, and eventually, some try to stone Jesus before he makes an escape.
One helpful book in my ministry has been a book by Tom Berling and Lovett Weems called Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. Your purpose, they argue, should answer the “so that” question. Anything you do in the life of the church or in your own individual life should have a corresponding so that purpose to it. Here’s what they mean: think of something you spend your time doing, and then think about why you do it. You might say, “I go running regularly so that I keep my heart healthy and strong.” Everything after the words so that is your purpose. Although other things might happen when you run, the so that is the fruit you are seeking after. And if your running isn’t helping to keep your heart healthy and strong, and that’s the main purpose of why you were running, you need to come up with another plan of action. Berlin and Weems want churches to be clear about their so that statements. They want us to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how what we’re doing helps to support our true purpose. In The United Methodist Church, for example, our official mission statement states that our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So we might be doing a lot of great things as a congregation, but if those things aren’t helping us to grow as disciples, and they aren’t helping others to become disciples, we might start to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Our gospel lesson today contains an implied so that statement. Jesus is pretty clear throughout the scriptures about what his purpose is, and we have a great example here: I came so that people might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus’s desire for us is to be full up of life, overflowing with life, experience wholeness, salvation, abundance. Jesus wants for us to experience deep joy, deep love, abundant life. Are we? I wonder, if a primary purpose and mission of Jesus is for us to experience abundant life, how is it that so many people, and in fact so many of us, seem empty, rather than full?
I think back to the story of Diggory, the witch, and the garden. I wonder: why does anyone climb in over the walls, instead of coming in through the gate? And how is it that the sheep, who know the voice of the shepherd, end up in the arms of the thief, the bandit, instead of following the Good Shepherd? How do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life?
David Lose writes, “I think that as stark as that contrast seems [between the thief who comes to kill and Jesus who comes to give life], it gets really blurry really fast. Do you know what I mean? Take email as a rather small example: I still remember when email was hailed as a time-saver – “we won’t have to play phone-tag anymore!” And, indeed, email is incredibly convenient and helpful. But it also sucks more of my week than I want to admit even to myself. So is it giving life or taking it?
“Or consider work. I’ve been blessed to have been given several jobs over the course of my life that I absolutely love. Yet from time to time, I lose myself in my work and suddenly find myself so tired and haggard that it’s hard to remember what I was working at or why…and notice the toll it’s taken on those around me. So, life giving or life taking?
“Or our kids. There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” … Life giving or life taking?
“Money. So many great things money can do…for us, our families, congregations, neighbors, all those in need. But goodness how easy it is for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. Life giving or life taking?
“Church ... So many wonderful, incredibly wonderful things about our congregations and our life together in the church, and yet I’ve also seen congregations do awful things to each other and fall far short of being the body of Christ in the world … So…life giving or life taking?” (1) I ask again, how do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life? And how do we fix it?
Repeatedly in the text, Jesus talks about how the sheep listen to his voice. Are we listening to Jesus’ voice? Amid the cacophony of other voices clamoring for our attention, how do we hear Jesus calling to us? “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” As I was reading over our text, my mind kept flashing back to a favorite movie from my childhood, Annie. In the movie, orphan Annie rescues a stray dog from a group of bullying boys, and gets ready to sneak it back to the orphanage with her. A dogcatcher from the pound wants to take Sandy in, but gives Annie a chance to convince him that the dog should belong to her. He’ll let Annie take the dog if Annie can get Sandy to come when she calls. Annie and another passerby both try to call to the dog, but Sandy is smart enough to know the voice of the one who has protected him already, and he goes with Annie.
How will we know Jesus’ voice? Thankfully, we already belong to Jesus, and Jesus knows our name. In the midst of many voices, listen for the voice of the one who really knows you. We can follow some of the advice I gave to the children today: we can study, learn about Jesus, learn about what he teaches us, so that it is even easier to hear what he has to say, because we know his teachings so well. We can be as smart as Sandy was with Annie: Sandy only knew Annie for a few minutes, but already Sandy knew to go with the one who was protecting him. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. A thief won’t do that. Notice who is willing to lay down their life for you, contrasted with all the voices who are looking, instead, to take life from you. Ask yourself: which voice is drawing me closer to God, and which voice is leading me farther away? Which voice is setting my heart on fire, and which voices are leaving me burned up and burned out? And whose voice is calling us to live our lives with purpose, rather than leaving us wondering why we’re bothering to do what we do?
Friends, Jesus wants us – all of us – to experience abundant life. And thankfully, we just have to follow the voice of this good shepherd who knows us by name, who calls out for us, whose voice we know. “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Let’s follow that voice. Amen.