These days it’s about protecting ourselves and one another. Outside the Commissary at Hickam they limit the number of people who can be in the Commissary at one time. So you form a line outside, six feet part, and you wait at the door. Until the person who checks the IDs tells you that you can go in.
There are all types of doors and gates that we encounter. Some gates are to keep people out, others are to keep them in. Some are welcoming and others are formidable obstacles. But I guess it depends on our perspective.
Sometimes gates are a necessary and useful structure, other times simply a decoration. Gated communities welcome the protection that it affords. But for those who are incarcerated, the gated communities of jails and prisons inhibits freedom. The dictionary describes a gate as “a moveable structure that controls entrance and exit.”
The fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. And so our readings reflect the traits of those who follow the good shepherd, the familiar 23rd Psalm, and a portion of 1 Peter telling us that though we were like sheep going astray we have reunted to the shepherd who guards our souls.
In the gospel of John there are what are called the “I am” statements of Jesus; I am the bread of Life, I am the light of the world, I am the Good shepherd and so on- 7 in total. And even though in the verses that follow this passage he says, I am the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep, in our Gospel reading for today he speaks mostly to being the gate.
There is a distinction here that Jesus makes. He does not say that he is the gatekeeper necessarily, but rather as the gate itself.
Traditionally, this text has often been used as a means of exclusion. Jesus says, “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.” People have used this passage to create false boundaries that reinforce their own power- labeling as the “thieves and bandits” as anyone who is “unorthodox or just not like us. Whether that means you are conservative or liberal, the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, even liturgy and so on. Add this to another I am statement from John: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life” and the message becomes “Not everyone is going to get saved,” or “Jesus doesn’t love everyone,” is a subliminal text. But underlying it all is a pious concern for being “correct.”
You and I who find ourselves so far away from what it was to be a shepherd in the time of Jesus might think something got lost in translation. But no. In calling himself the gate, Jesus was describing exactly what a shepherd does.
In sheep-folds which was typically a rock wall enclosure of stacked stones with thorny brush on top that provided protection against theves and robbers but it also provided protection against wolves and other animals of prey. There was a break in the wall where there was no actual physical gate, the shepherd would lie himself down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd knew who or what came and went or who or what attempted to come and go and so could serve as protector of the sheep.
That Jesus is the gate is the reinforcement that he is the protector. He is the one who knows the sheep and calls them by name and in that same light we hear his voice and follow where he leads. When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” it is his way of inviting us both in and out. Jesus is telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place where we know we are loved and protected.
But he is also telling us that we will need to go back out through that gate into the world. He calls us out- not in that way that is confrontational, but call us out he does. It is his invitation to leave safety and security and go back out into a world of challenges and stumbling blocks.
And maybe that seems odd to hear that right now, when we are at home for many hours of the day.
Jesus promises that with the Lord as our shepherd, we will “come in and go out and find pasture.” Outside the fold, sheep are under threat from predators. The shepherd’s rod and staff are not only comfort, but protection.
But the biggest risk comes from the sheep themselves – they are apt to wander off, each to its own way. In the Psalm God may lead us to green pastures and besides still waters, but how many times are we constantly scouting for greener pastures thinking what we have isn’t enough? We only have to look at the empty shelves of the grocery store devoid of paper and cleaning products see that we imagine we do not have enough by God’s hand.
The Reading from Acts talks abut those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Yes but there is more- their faith was moved into action. The early Christian community knew what it meant to care for others in need. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to the all as any had need.
In short, this is what the Christian community does, when we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. We follow him. When we do so, we are left with a sense of awe and mystery. And who do we listen to and how do we listen to the voices of the suffering?
Our hearts and minds are always searching for that place of security in the world- as Sheep we need to listen- we need to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. There is a danger that we can be lured into a false notion that all we need is Jesus and patch of green grass to graze- nothing more.
In the eyes of the world, we may seem foolish to follow the voice of Jesus and in his footsteps. My sheep go where I lead- he says. Jesus calls us out of the fold into a world that is crying out with anxiety, isolation, fear and loneliness. Jesus is calling us to listen for and to hear the voices of those who need us most.
And yet we must also listen for danger- There are a thousand competing voices call to us that we should look for escape instead of sacrifice, should seek an easier bliss than the peace of God, should search for our own greener pastures and leave the rest of the flock behind.
The voices say crucified Christ of Good Friday is not the gate that leads to life and hope but is seen as a stumbling block, and looks like foolishness to many. Why would we worship a God who became like us, who died as one of the lambs?
That sounds like a lot to do. But we aren’t alone. The Lord is my Shepherd. He leads us besides still waters, and restores our soul. And even in the valley of shadows, in the doubt and uncertainly of our faith, God is still there. Protecting and guiding- Thy rod and staff are a comfort.
Jesus doesn’t call us to become something different; he calls us to grow into who we truly are.
Good Shepherd doesn’t round up the sheep with a whistle, or herd them with whips and prods and dogs. The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name.
In the end, our only wisdom is to know our shepherd’s voice. Our one skill as sheep is to listen – to listen from the deep place in which we recognize who we truly are, and whose we truly are. Because the Good Shepherd is the only one who calls us by our own names, our true names, the ones that lie in the very heart of God.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.