May 3, 2020, Living In A New Reality: The Good Shepherd, by Pastor David Tatgenhorst
John 10:1-10 The truth of the matter is, whoever doesn’t enter the sheep fold through the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a robber. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep, the one for whom the keeper opens the gate. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice; the shepherd calls them by name
and leads them out. Having led them all out of the fold, the shepherd walks in front of them and they follow because they recognize he shepherd’s voice. They simply won’t follow strangers—They’ll flee from them because they don’t recognize the voice of strangers.” Even though Jesus used this metaphor with them, they didn’t grasp what he was trying to tell them.
He therefore said to them again: “The truth of the matter is, I am the sheep gate. All who came before me were thieves and marauders whom the sheep didn’t heed. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe—you’ll go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, slaughter and destroy I came that you might have life and have it to the full.
We meditate on this passage for a moment and as we think about Jesus as the shepherd or the gate, we imagine who Jesus is letting into the sheepfold, whom we might not let in.
May 3, 2020 Living in a New Reality: The Good Shepherd St. Luke
When Ann Abbott was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to go visit her. It’s my job and I kind of take it personally when somebody says I can’t do something. I have sometimes used my clergy status to get in to visit a friend or relative during off hours. Usually nobody seems to mind or want to enforce the rules, but during this time, it seems a little different than that. There are good reasons for me not to be visiting - as frustrating as it is.
All kinds of gates are going up and being argued about these days - who is allowed to visit whom? who is allowed to open and who has to stay shut? Who can go out and who has to stay in? Where can we go and where can’t we? We in the US are not used to this. We value our freedom and think we should be able to do whatever we want. It’s just other people we think should be restricted.
Sometimes it’s taken to extremes. I heard this week about two women who are nurses. Their father got sick and was hospitalized in the hospital where they were worked. They were not allowed to visit him and he died. That I just can’t understand.
Yesterday, we had a graveside service for Donna Boswell. It was not the big memorial service with the organ that she made me promise she would have. That will come later. We will still have it. But still, about 25 people came to the gravesite. That was clearly more than the rules allow, but do you think I was going to say some of those people had to go home? No way.
We are going to have decisions to make in the next couple of months about how to and whether to reopen. My understanding is that we are not very close right now in Southeast PA, which is very frustrating, and when we can reopen, the first stage will only allow us to have 25 people and not include singing together, at least not without masks. That is going to make for some tricky decisions. We will figure it out, because we are care about each other and we don’t have a lot of grudges or worries that somebody is out to take away our right to go to church. But some parts of the country are already having big fights about this - especially about church.
Every year, the fourth Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. We always have the option to read the 23rd Psalm - which we did at Donna’s funeral, and several other readings about shepherding. This is an occupation which seems a little distant to most of us. I used to think about it with my dog, who was an Australian Shepherd. She told me she would really enjoy herding some sheep and why don’t I get some.
I’ve been working on my Spanish during this pandemic, and I noticed that the word for shepherd is ‘pastor.’ I guess I knew that before, but I don’t really often make the connection - not even when somebody says, “Hey pastor, how’s your flock?” … I don’t really think of you all as my flock. Sheep are kind of dumb animals, I understand, and I think you deserve more respect than that.
But looking more closely at our passage for today, you may notice that though this is Good shepherd Sunday, and Jesus does say in the following passage, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I am the good pastor. In this passage, he actually says, “I am the gate.” “I am the sheep gate.” It says the people listening were confused, and we could well be confused too.
In the gospel of John, Jesus constantly uses these kind of metaphors, “I am” statements. You may remember of course that “I AM” is a name for God. In Exodus, when asked for God’s name, God says to Moses, “I am who I am.” We sometimes get worried about what to call God- Abba, YHWH, Father, Mother, Creator. Jesus says, “I am the gate. I am the vine. I am the good shepherd.” God says, “I am who I am.”
In this time when the rules are stricter about who can go out and who can get in, we might want to think a bit about what it means for Jesus to say “I am the sheep gate.” I hear it as a quite compassionate statement, as Jesus says, the sheep hear my voice and recognize it, recognize that I will lead them to a pasture - to sustenance, to abundant life.” It is a mixed metaphor, but it has a welcoming, pastoral quality to it. I can also have a limiting exclusionary effect as we see in this passage.
Let me just say that in relation to our current crisis, most of our political leaders seem to be fond of a different analogy. State and federal officials, Democratic and Republican, French and US Leaders, like to use the analogy that we are at war. It is the language of power and control. It has some uses.
We know how to make sense of things when we are at war. We honor the fallen, pray for soldiers, hang flags, and supplement the national anthem with “America the Beautiful,” color guards, and flyovers. And believe me, I want to beat Covid-19 as much as the next person. But an article I read this week by Jason A. Mahn argued that using exclusively war language can also take a toll.
But some of the work that is still ahead of us will require different skills than fighting a war - more like patiently waiting out this infectious storm, learning to care for the infected and affected, and grieving the loss of loved ones. There is much that we will need to bear and survive rather than control and conquer. (Jason A. Mahn) (hearing and heeding the voice of the gatekeeper and the good shepherd.)
With war language we have to find someone to fight and someone to blame. This path is what lead us to dehumanizing Chinese people and setting them up to be an enemy rather than an ally in a common work. War language, if we use it exclusively, does not help us focus on how to live in the present. What does it mean for our country to live well with this pandemic? Will we be patient and kind? Will we be able to accept and faithfully bear tragedy, even as we try to conquer it? How will we care for those who cannot be cured, even when we have to keep distance, a painful dilemma?
Maybe we will do better to use the metaphors of the Bible - to hear Jesus saying “I am the sheep gate. I am the good shepherd.” Maybe these metaphors can help us slow down rather than speed up, breathe rather than fight, have hope rather than despair. Jesus used the analogy of shepherd, which always seems a little distant to me. In the past, I have thought about a modern analogy, imagining Jesus today saying “ I am the good parking lot attendant.” I am the person doing a job not valued, taking care of other people’s property all day, sitting out, watching, waiting.
This year a different modern analogy comes to mind. I imagine Jesus saying,
“I am the good grocery clerk who checks out your food, or brings it to your car.”
“I am the good caregiver for your grandmother, giving her the love you may not be able to give in person right now.”
“I am the good truck driver - bringing food from the fields to your table, wearing a mask to try to keep you and me from getting sick.”
“I am the good governor - trying to navigate between being a gate and rule-maker, and helping to open up safely.”
“I am the good funeral director - bringing comfort to a family, and helping find the balance between celebration of a life, and the need to keep some distance.”
“I am the good mail carrier - faithfully delivering packages & messages to your home.”
We may find God in Christ in each of these roles and in many others played by people we care for and people we admire or respect. And we may be called to find our way too, listening to God’s voice when we try to figure out the balance between the boundaries set by the virus and the demands we feel to love and care for our nearest and dearest family and friends.
Today, we gather in our homes with our communion elements, taking into own bodies the gift of Christ’s very presence, God’s body into our own. May we find God intimately directing our compassion and our decisions as we wait, as we pray, as we find our way during a difficult time. God is the one who knows our names, God is the force which leads us always through the gate to abundant life, abundant life for all God’s creation. This is God’s good news. Surely God’s kindness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of our God forever.
Communion Hymn 2058 Shepherd Me, O God