Today the scriptures teach us about the real meaning of unity. We need to be one with Our Good Shepherd and with each other. And that means with all, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree with each other or not. Unity is not a matter of agreeing with each other but of the heart, caring for each other. The Acts of the apostles doesn’t tell us that they didn’t had disagreements. It does tell us: “they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers’. I bet the Early Christians had a busy schedule too, but yet do care for each other. The lack of care concerns me in the modern day Church. And I am not talking about the laity only. When was the last time you asked your brother or sister in Christ how he or she was doing? I mean in a genuine way not just as a standard question as so often in our American culture. But your not waiting to hear or are interested in the answer.
Today we talk about the Good Shepherd. As Clergy we are called to Shepherd the flock, to Shepherd each other. It is not only about Shepherding your congregation but about shepherding all people and that includes your fellow clergy. I hear a lot of clergy talking a lot about themselves: their parish, their schedule and their burdens, but not so much about the burdens and struggles of your co-workers "in the vineyard of the Lord: That person can also struggle, fall, be lonely, be depressed, discouraged or go astray. Keep that in mind and don’t abandon each other. Don’t make it all about yourself and your ministry. It is not all about you. Every single soul is important to the Lord. Luckily there are good exceptions. But in general it has to be said that your fellow worker in the “vineyard of the Lord” is also one of your sheep. Keep each other in mind the next time you talk about love, care and unity. Do like Jesus and be “a gate” of protection and care for each other as well.
That being said, I want to look a little deeper into the Shepherd metaphor. We’re so familiar with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we forget what a kind of an amazing image it is for the Son of Man to take to himself. And, because of that, we have to look at little bit back into the history of shepherds. In my life I think I saw twice a shepherd. One time I was drinking a coffee in a bistro in my homeland. The other time was in Ireland, out in the country, where shepherds still guide their flock. And yet the image of shepherds and sheep is very familiar to me. After all the Latin word pastor means Shepherd. We, pastors especially, are called to shepherd people, all people. They might not be like us, they might not believe like us, they might not vote like us…but we give them the best we got.
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, it is all about the, Pastor Bonus, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. When we think of a shepherd, we can think of a lot of things but in a religious sense, it is all about care. The Prophet Ezekiel tells us all about true shepherding. And that is a lesson for all shepherd that think they speak on behalf of God. God tells Ezekiel that he takes away the sheep from the shepherd that only take care of themselves. The ones that did not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured and brought back the strayed and the lost. God says plainly that he is against these kind of shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. He will remove them from tending the flock and Shepherd the flock himself. And will do everything these shepherd didn’t do.
That is not only a reminder the shepherds of Israel back then, but also to the moderen day Church. These words are for all times. In the Church there are shepherds who think know what is in Gods mind. They judge, they condemn, they prey but they don’t Shepherd. We should not be like that. Many inspiring people in the Bible are Shepherds. Abraham was a shepherd, his son was, Moses was and David was. The shepherd metaphor has a very unique and important meaning in scripture. But the idea of a shepherd comes to a new understanding when God stands before His people and when Jesus says these sacred words: “I am the Good shepherd.” Not a shepherd but “I am the Good shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep”. There are times in our lives that we cannot do it by ourselves and need someone that leads us on the way through life.
We need the Good Shepherd to lead us, especially when we are discouraged. He is always with us and never leaves his sheep. You know, the Jewish shepherd of old were not educated men. They were looked down upon. They were never allowed to give witness in a court case because they weren’t smart enough. That is why God gives them a prominent place in the birth story of Jesus. The shepherd would often be away from home for a long time. And when the Gospel speaks about the sheep fold, we have to understand that is was not always a closed of area. Sometimes it was just closed of by rocks or stones. The shepherd would make a little sheep area for them, a little protection against the wild animals. And he would leave the gate. He would leave it to a designated person, the gate keeper. This gate keeper knew who the shepherd was and would recognize his voice. The Holy Spirit is the gate keeper and he recognizes the voice of Jesus. That is what Jesus is saying.
Second, if Jesus is talking about the gate we, in our modern day thinking, might think that it was a wooden or iron gate. But it was not like that at all back then. The gate was just an opening among the rocks that he had piled up all around to protect the sheep. And that’s why Jesus can say, “I am the gate,” because the gate isn’t a thing, the gate is an opening into the sheep fold. And the sheep when they’re inside the gate feel secure and feel happy and feel content. Jesus is the gate, because he opens for us the way to God. The gate was about five or six feet, just enough to get the sheep through. When the shepherd got them all in, he might still worry that some might be late. So the shepherd would lay down in the space and sleep at the gate. In that way the late sheep can kind of nudge him to get into the sheep fold. He did it also so the wild animals, that prey on the sheep, would have to step over him. So he literally lies before the sheep in order to protect them. Very courageous. What a wonderful metaphor that Jesus puts on himself. He literally lies before everything that can harm us, to protect and safeguard us.
When David volunteered to fight Goliath, He said that he defended the sheep gate against lions and tigers and leopards and wild dogs and thieves, and that he drove them all away and the sheep knew they were safe with him. So now when Jesus says, “I am the gate,” he is saying more, “I am the Good Shepherd, the one who defends and takes care of and makes his sheep feel secure, and never loses them and lays his life down for them,” which Jesus does. Another metaphor is a goal keeper in soccer. He would defend his goal and throws himself in front of the ball, the opponent, even risking his own welfare. He does not care if it harms him, as long as his “team” is safe. We are on Jesus team and he will plunges himself before everything that can possible harm us.
So,” and here’s the point, “if you wish to recognize the Savior,” the one who is among you, you have to look for the one that protects the sheep gate. The one that gives everything for his sheep. He can be that stranger that we might not recognize, like the Emmaus disciples. But we will recognize him when he is breaking the bread and says: “ I am the Good Shepherd that gives his life for the Sheep”. We need to do just like the disciples, and take in the stranger and the lost. We “Seek the Lord in the sharing of the bread.” and in sharing the bread with each other, we will find the Good Shepherd. Amen