The Shelter of our Good Shepherd
May 03, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 10:1-10
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
“Sheltering in place,” that is a common phrase now, but one that I had not heard until recently. To shelter in place, in the strictest sense, is to find a safe place and stay there until being told it is safe to move. It is needed due to random violence, threatening weather, or, as we have experienced so recently, a highly contagious illness. Sheltering in place is a way to remain safe and keep others safe as well.
At some point, though, one must come out of the shelter, which we know is the process that is beginning in Ohio as we continue to monitor our health and safety carefully. It is interesting, then, that on this Good Shepherd Sunday, as we read John 10, there is an example of sheltering in place - the sheepfold.
The images that Jesus uses of sheep and shepherding are usually not all that helpful to us 21st-century city dwellers. So, we must put them in context with a little lesson on first-century shepherding in Palestine. Herds of sheep would roam the countryside, watched over by the Shepherd, who protected them from predators and might lead them to a better grazing spot or water. At night, though, the sheep were gathered and placed in an enclosure for their safety, a sheepfold.
There might be three or four flocks in the sheepfold, but there were no concerns about them being mixed up. Commentator Scott Hoezee writes that in the Middle East to this day, one might see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arriving at a watering hole around sundown. With minutes these different flocks of sheep mix to form one big amalgamated flock. But, the various shepherds do not worry about this because each one knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his distinctive whistle, call or play his shepherd’s flute and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust. (1) The sheep know their shepherd’s voice.
Getting back to the sheepfold – there was only one entrance, or door, or gate. Thieves might sneak in to steal the sheep, but not by the entrance, which was guarded by the shepherd(s), but by climbing in and nabbing a lamb before being noticed.
Now, everything I just described is also shared by Jesus in the first five verses of John 10 and should have been very familiar to Jesus’ first listeners. So, why is it that verse 6 says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them?” Perhaps this image is so common that they struggle to apply the spiritual meaning he is expressing, that he is the Good Shepherd.
So, Jesus tries again, calling himself the gate for the sheep. Honestly, I am not sure that is much clearer; he wants them to grasp that he is the way into, and out of, the sheepfold – that safe place. They will be safe inside, guarded by his presence, and when they leave the safe place, he will lead them. When they listen for his voice and follow him, all will be well.
There are various ways to apply this image; probably the most common one is to think of the sheepfold, the safe place, as eternity, and being outside of it as the here and now. In either location, the Good Shepherd is with us. I think that Jesus is telling them, and us, that he can be trusted; he is the way to experience the fullness of life. (“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”)
I admit to you that as I studied this text for the umpteenth time this week, the thing that came to mind was our sheltering in place, the shepherds (with a small “s”), and THE SHEPHERD who are leading us.
Ideally, our homes have been our sheepfold, our safe place. (Obviously, this has not been true for everyone since there are homes that are never safe, especially for children.) Jesus has been with us, acknowledged or not, while we have been there. Some thieves, including our inner voices, as well as those outside of us, have tried to get into the safe place. They want to steal our serenity by communicating misinformation or questioning our choices or criticizing our actions or sowing anxiety or even bringing in danger.
But there also have been wise shepherds – the Good Shepherd’s assistants, I’ll call them – who have been communicating clearly and honestly, affirming sacrifice, promoting peace-of-mind, and pointing out threats. Among those wise shepherds are Governor Mike DeWine, Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, Ohio Medical Director Dr. Amy Acton, and, in ELCA circles Bishops Elizabeth Eaton and Abraham Allende.
They are to be commended, I think, for the way they have shepherded us through this pandemic. We have been, and are, listening to them and are thankful for them.
Yet, the most significant voice for us to hear and follow is that of Jesus, THE Good Shepherd, who leads us to places of abundance and hope. When we read the familiar words of Psalm 23, it is Jesus who comes to mind. We need him, especially when we walk through shadowy valleys.
Let me quote Pastor Hoezee as he reflects on our current days, “One way or the other, we are experiencing a valley time. For some of us, the valley is a time with inconvenience and uncertainty and a few things that are testing our patience. But for others of us, the valley has gone all-but completely dark: someone we know is very sick. Someone we love has died, and we can’t even hold a funeral.” (2)
But, Psalm 23 tells us to fear no evil BECAUSE the Shepherd is with us. And, as the Easter season continues, we remember that he has been through the valley himself, on our behalf. He knows the way through the darkness to reach the light.
We need wise shepherds, and thankfully we have had them, but we particularly need THE Good Shepherd. It is true that most of us are “too through” with the pandemic life. We had looked toward May as the turn-around, which it is but just not as quickly as many of us had hoped.
So, we turn our ears to Jesus; we listen for his voice, which we recognize because it speaks of sacrifice and love, and we remember that goodness and mercy follows us all our days, and forever. AMEN
(1) “The Lectionary Psalms – Psalm 23” by Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(2) Same as #1