“I am the gate for the sheep.”
Long ago when I finished my undergrad I went to live with a host family in Southern Germany for about a year. It was in a bucolic German town nestled among low lying hills and mountains. The family had sheep on their acreage which was on the edge of town. Europe is great at integrating small farming and residential areas. The sheep were kept in a hilly pasture by a fairly flimsy electric fence. There were moveable fence posts and the sheep could be moved from area to area by moving the fence. The electric current is what kept them inside since the bendable steaks and mesh fencing was not a deterrent on their own. The family told me a story that once they had a sheep who discovered the insulating properties of wool. Perhaps by accident, the sheep discovered that the electric fence only zapped them when touching it with their face. When they brushed up against the fence with their wool nothing happened. Gradually the farm hand who tended to the sheep would find this sheep outside the pasture. He would search in vain for a hole in the fence, finding none. He double-checked the electric current attached to the fence which was functioning properly. Then came the revelation. Apparently this sheep was also part gymnast, because it discovered it was possible to roll over the fence and avoid electric shock. The flimsy fence would simply flatten down, allowing the sheep to escape the pasture. Soon other sheep started copying their gymnast friend and there would be several sheep roaming around the yard and eventually the village. This became too much work for the person tending the sheep, so the family constructed a proper chain link fence around the perimeter of their property. And summersaulting wasn’t a skill that was multi-generational, so eventually it disappeared. It’s an amusing story and while I like to imagine the sheep doing graceful summersaults I am sure the reality was somewhat different.
In today’s gospel reading we hear about Jesus protecting sheep in the sheepfold. The thing with sheep is they often don’t know they would be in danger outside the sheepfold. The sheep in Germany just wanted to get to the greener, taller grass on the other side or raid the vegetable garden. They didn’t realize there could be predators and in their case more likely the threat of cars on a nearby busy street.
We hear in the gospel reading that Jesus’ is both the gate of the sheepfold and the good shepherd. One thing a gate serves is that it only lets in the sheep or shepherd who should be in the sheepfold. A faulty gate can threaten the entire flock. While we don’t have a lot of sheepfolds on Vancouver Island or even in Western Canada generally, some of us have grown up around cattle and ranching and can relate to this image of a cattle gate for example. Gates help keep sheep from escaping and keep danger out.
And the good shepherd helps ensure the sheepfold is a safe space, monitoring the fence and the gate. Keeping coyotes and wolves at bay. And while Jesus as a gate and a good shepherd is a metaphor, it’s not a far stretch to think of ways Jesus and the gospel serve as our gate and good shepherd in our lives. It may be true that no place is entirely a safe space. Jesus does not offer physical protection in the literal sense. Instead Jesus’ grounds us in baptism in a gospel that offers a protecting sheepfold against various threats in the world.
These threats are not always perceptible but nonetheless real. For example the gospel offers protecting from the various lies that threaten to break us down. Messages that we hear that we’re not good enough on our own. Today many of these messages are about eroding social supports and atomizing us. We are stronger together as community, as one body, but our world tries to pick us off individually and sow doubts that we’re not good enough in various ways.
Messages that tells us our bodies aren’t good enough and so we have to try to conform to an unachievable beauty standard.
That we’re not rich or glamorous enough, so we should strive for greater success and status.
That only by consuming more will become happy.
That even if we we oppose all these things, our efforts will be futile because those forces are stronger than any one of us.
Now that last threat, that we can’t solve the world’s problems on our own is true. But what isn’t true is that we ever solve big problems single-handedly. Jesus comes reminding us about the strength of community. The strength of following him as the good shepherd and trusting he as the gospel is the gate who saves through love.
This is why church communities have long been places of organizing and resistance. When Canadians needed accessible healthcare it started in churches to organize and demand changes in government to provide universal healthcare. And while some of these supports are in dire shape today, we know that it’s only by organizing and working together that things will get better. People power, rooted in the power of a gospel promising that working together as a whole flock we will be safer. That outside the sheepfold we will fall prey to the schemes of others. But by working together we can flourish. Jesus delivers the message that God has great things in store for us. And to trust in that.
The wolves that lay in wait for sheep escaping the sheepfold know the strength of the gate and the shepherd who keeps watch. Sometimes we are in a position of safety and strength within the sheepfold and we inflate the power of the wolves. I know I do this sometimes. I doubt how can we combat climate change when oil companies are just going to what they want anyways? How can we change things when our governments say one thing, but then do another? How can we push back against anti-trans hate when the voices are so loud?
We shouldn’t minimize our own strength. We shouldn’t minimize the strength of Jesus’ love that is in us. A love that is unstoppable because even when the state executes it, when love is crucified, Jesus’ love dies and rises again. This love that is the gate and the good shepherd who protects, reassures us that we are okay.
Even though everything may not be okay in our lives. Even though our bodies don’t always do what we want them to. Even though our memories might be faltering at times. Even though we deeply miss loved ones who are no longer there, but whose presence is all around us. Even though we feel less than what we think society expects us to become. Jesus’ love reassures us that we are enough. Because a love that big is enough to give us healing in the midst of brokenness. It’s not about pretending that we and the world aren’t fragmented and flawed. But rather Jesus promises each of us is enough. Each of us is loved.
That’s a much stronger position to work towards our common goals in our lives, with our families, among our neighbours, as a congregation, trusting that we are already enough. Jesus grants us sanctuary from the naysayers and negative self-talk. So that we can remind one another we are already doing great things. And together we can continue doing even more great things as the body of Christ.
The strength of community is a gift of faith. None of us need to feel that strength within ourselves. It’s enough that we trust it as a community. And together we build one another up. Just as Jesus first loves us and builds us up as sheep in the sheepfold. We don’t need to feel strong. We don’t need to believe we have it altogether. It’s enough that we showed up and the community is building each of us up as followers of Jesus. That is why we gather around the table and receive that gift of grace each Sunday.
Wrapping up, there will be times that we do funny things. When we become gymnast sheep, rolling over the gate, getting stuck under rocks, getting lost. Trust that we are not alone. We are enough. Jesus comes seeking us out, promising safety as the gate and good shepherd. Amen.