Sermon, Year A Easter 4, May 15, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: John 10:1-10 (Jesus says he is the sheepgate)
This has long struck me as an odd thing for Jesus to say. “I am the sheepgate.” Not just “I am the gate” in a generic sense, but a specific kind of gate. The gate that offers ingress and egress to the sheepfold, a pen for sheep—a very large one that can hold multiple flocks, and some which were large enough to have a guard at the door, or sheepgate.
Jesus gives many “I am” statements: I am the truth, the way, and the life (we’ll hear him say that in next Sunday’s Gospel reading). I am the vine. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the living bread. I am the light of the world. And so on. These are fairly non-specific. Living bread, not half-round-loaf of rye bread. I am the vine, not, I am a pinot grigio well-tended vine on the south slope of the hill. But this time he’s specific. Not “I am the gateway” or “the door,” but “I am the gate that one finds in a sheepfold.”
It just strikes me as odd. Though I see the point, and so also, I think, the Pharisees he was telling it to got the point. He was insulting them. He’s calling them to task for their failure. There’s that line in this passage, “they did not understand what he was saying to them,” but I wonder if they did get it, and acted like they didn’t, like we might do with a child who has spoken intemperately. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch all that. Would you like to say that again?” and the child knows full well you understood and he or she absolutely does not want to say it again. So, perhaps, it was with the Pharisees. “I’m sorry, Jesus. Do you wish to repeat that for everyone? We didn’t quite get it” in effort to shut him up. But Jesus replies, “Sure, I’ll repeat it: I said you’re thieves and bandits, and your only purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy and you have misled all these people you’re supposed to be helping. You want me to summarize that, too, or do you think you have it now, you bears of very little brain?”
The Jewish leaders, the priests and religious authorities are supposed to be tending to the sheep and protecting them, but they aren’t. They are more concerned with rules and law, instead of concerned with the lives of their people. Jesus steps in to say that since they aren’t doing their job, he will do it. He is the gate by which the sheep enter and leave. He also is the gate keeper. The job they are supposed to be doing.
This passage is a continuation of a longer conversation/diatribe-against-the-leaders that started in Chapter 8. Jesus was teaching at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery – apparently the man who was with the woman wasn’t sinning or committing adultery, they so rarely are – they brought the woman and ask Jesus what they should do since Moses’ law requires that she be stoned to death. This was a trick question which they hoped would trip up Jesus, but he said, “Go ahead. Stone her to death. But! The first stone has to be thrown by someone without sin.” No one throws anything. Jesus teaches some more, and then they try to stone him, but he escapes. He comes back, heals a man blind who had been blind from birth (we read that story in worship a month or two ago). And that healing enrages the Jewish leaders because he healed the man on the Sabbath. They didn’t care about the wondrous miracle of a man finally gaining his sight, but were focused on the violation of sabbath law to do no work. So they have a long argument with the man, his family, and others. Then Jesus shows up at the end again, the Pharisees argue with him, and at the end of the argument, the tail end of Chapter 9 which leads straight into today’s passage, the Pharisees ask, “We are not blind, are we?” to which Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.”
They are concerned not with the lives of their sheep, so to speak, but with making sure the sheep are following some abstract set of rules and regulations, even when those are more life-stealing than life-giving.
We have this going on today. Getting so focused on potential sin that we deny the life that is behind it. There are those today who seem to think that homosexuality is the only sin to be concerned about. Now, I don’t think it is a sin, but if it is, why does it seem to be THE sin, the only one, that can keep people out of a church or a leadership position? We have those who worry more about doctrinal purity or dogmatic devotion than to the state of a person’s soul or their spiritual needs and struggles. The ones who say to abused wives, “You made a vow to your husband, so stick to it” or who would ignore all the gifts and spiritual power of women because it’s more important to maintain the rule that women aren’t allowed to lead. How much harm have we caused because we care about rules more than people? How much have we lost because we refuse to believe that God can call or work through anyone made in the divine image and not just men, or whites, or straights, or celibates or marrieds or whatever? And that doesn’t even touch on the people who use religious authority to take advantage of others for sex or money or for power itself. Or those who use the Bible to gain power as a weapon or hurt or causing fear and thus give power.
You have probably seen around town the billboards about Judgement Day coming this Saturday, May 21, and then the end of the world on October 21. A bunch of nonsense, of course, but I’m sure it’s getting the donor dollars and raising fear in a lot of people. And if there are billboards in Eau Claire, there are billboards all over the country and maybe the world. Interestingly, this nonsense is being peddled by Family Radio—interesting because it seems that many abusive/manipulative religious groups and organizations put “Family” in their name. Now, maybe they are correct. I don’t know what that will do for our church cleanup day Saturday, and I don’t mean to make light of what is a very serious misuse of scripture and religious authority, but if a rapture happens Saturday, I’ll be here next Sunday eating crow and preaching a vastly different understanding of God than I have ever preached or believed before. But, I don’t think they are right, because the whole premise of a rapture is unbiblical and because they predict this bunk every couple years and they’re always wrong. 200+ years they’ve been at it and they’re always wrong. And sometimes they claim that the end didn’t happen because they were so busy that they saved enough souls, so keep those donations coming in! That’s not religion, and it’s not Christianity. It’s abuse.
How much unmet real physical and spiritual need does the construction and erection of these billboards represent? Jesus’ words to the religious leaders were often, “Stop taking advantage of your people, stop using faith to cause fear or to enrich yourselves or enlarge your power. Stop abusing people in God’s name ... do something helpful. Teach them about God’s love. Feed them. Heal them. Include them. Hold them. Love them. Like a shepherd takes care of his or her sheep.”
“I am the sheepgate. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
We only read through verse 10, but verse 11 says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus said that the sheep know the sound of the shepherd’s voice. That’s important. When we hear things like a date for the end of the world, or people like Westboro Baptist, the family that protests at military funerals, who loudly proclaim who God hates, or other religious speak, you can ask yourself, “Does that sound like the God I’ve been hearing from and about? Does it sound like the Lord of Life, or something else?” Does it sound like your Shepherd’s voice? If not, then stay away. Don’t listen. You don’t have to follow those shepherds. Follow Jesus. “I am the sheepgate. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s the true voice of our shepherd, and it may be trusted.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, let us hear your voice in the din of so many claiming to speak for you. Help us to hear and to trust your call; to follow you wherever you lead, and ignore the voices of chaos. Give us courage to remember that through your Bible and through your Word, Jesus Christ, you speak the language of love and grace and eternal life, not fear, loveless judgement, or eternal separation from you. And help us also that when we speak about you we speak in truth and mercy, hope and love, so that we do not lead others astray but lead them closer to you and to one another. In the name of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.Tweet
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