"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Ok, true confessions. I have a line item in my monthly budget just for coffee drinks. Yup. I am ashamed to admit that I set aside a little bit of money every month for those gloriously overpriced steamed-milked, cardboard sleeved, caffeinated cups of deliciousness. And I’ve become such a coffee snob that there are only a few places that I will risk venturing to purchase these java delights, - and another confession - Starbucks is one of those places. Oh, Starbucks. And I know all the evils - the corporate dominance, the globalization, the oppressed coffee workers in El Salvador and Kenya. But, I justify to myself, if I’m going to spend five dollars on a cup of coffee, it had better be just the way I like it, every time. I have risked the hard-earned Lincoln-note for disasters called coffee, and I have learned my lesson - if you want to be safe, go where you’ve always gone.
And don’t companies and corporations rely on this? Isn’t that why chicken nuggets are always the same shape and when I say I’d like a “triple-grande-nonfat-one-pump-vanilla-caramel-macchiato,” it always tastes the same? And don’t we like that? Don’t we like that when we order a Big Mac, it doesn’t really taste like beef, it tastes like, well, a Big Mac? Don’t we like it when we know what to expect, know what will happen, and can invest in things that have guaranteed outcomes? Put your money in a Prudential account, because they are “like a rock.” Or if you want to know the “way forward” send your money to JP Morgan Chase. Don’t we like going into the same grocery store and knowing that our Cheerios will be right on the second shelf in aisle four, waiting for us? Don’t we come to this place, this sanctuary, often not really wanting to hear a new word from God, but wanting to have our own opinions reinforced? We feel comfortable and safe in our predictable, fenced in sheep pens.
I went to college expecting a predictable outcome. I’d put in four years, take out some loans, and come out with a degree that would get me a decent job that was also emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, pay off the loans, pay the bills, get dental insurance, and three weeks vacation.
A friend of mine voted for Obama, expecting an end to all war, expecting fully funded schools, and the eradication of all racially motivated police brutality.
Well. I ate the Snicker’s bar that “really satisfies,” and guess what, I got hungry again. I “obeyed my thirst,” drank a Sprite, and got thirsty again. I went to college, and then to grad school, and then to some more grad school, and here I am, still paying full price for my dental cleanings. We invested our money in JP Morgan and Citibank and The Bank of America, and we all know how that turned out. My friend who voted for Obama is so disappointed that he claims he will never vote for a mainstream party ever again. We believed the slogans, but they were - some of them quite literally - thieves and bandits, or maybe just people and corporations as lost and as hopeful and as naive as we are.
In our lectionary reading today, Jesus has just come back from breaking all the rules. Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the Shepherd in the context of being in trouble, big trouble. He has healed a blind man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are scandalized. He has debunked one of the most important precepts of the Jewish faith at the time. And what is the result? A man can see. The pious leaders are shocked. And everything is turned upside down.
The poor beggar is the one teaching the teachers, and the One who breaks the rules on the Sabbath is called “Lord.” Everyone believes that Jesus has gone off the deep-end, strayed far outside the normal constraints of his societal definitions.
And, Jesus, the one in big trouble, has the gall to step even further beyond the boundaries by being tough - really tough - on these Pharisees. He says to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Now, it’s important to emphasize that Jesus is hard on the leaders, the ones with power, the ones who have the resources to define for all the Jews who belongs to the fold and who doesn’t. They are the ones who create the slogans and enforce the rules. And Jesus’ conflict with these powerful authorities - the powerful men who construct and enforce societal boundaries - is central to the plot of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John focuses on the purposes of God, which include “the end of hierarchical and exploitative socioeconomic structures, which are replaced by communities of new power relations expressed in service and love.
This Gospel is about the end of all oppressive social structures secured by gender, ethnicity, cultural traditions and social status.” Jesus’ mission won’t fit into a slogan, can’t conform to a cookie cutter belief system, and demands a radical shift in our allegiance.
By Chapter 10, Jesus’ confrontations with the elite of his culture have reached a tipping point. “He attacks the Jerusalem leaders ... as “thieves and bandits” who steal resources from the people and threaten their well-being” “He challenges the leaders’ power and societal order secured in alliance with Rome”.
And how does Jesus explain his actions and his purpose? Through a metaphor, a story. We have a cozy sheepfold, surrounded by a fence perhaps, or more likely walls of stones, and enclosed by a gate. There’s a gatekeeper and a shepherd and sheep, and those who try to sneak in to the sheepfold by jumping the fence.
To those listening, as soon as Jesus said, “Shepherd”, Ezekiel 34 might come to mind. They’d set up a dichotomy between the powers of those who rule their present reality, and the Power of the One God who rules all. They would compare those with the power to define and construct their reality as Jews and humans, to the One who made The Reality itself. And Jesus is directly accusing these people and these social structures who are abusing their power of being thieves and bandits - of promising one thing, but delivering another, of taking more than their fair share of resources, and leaving the sheep with nothing. Thieves and bandits are those who deceive, who defy, who slyly convince, and maybe, just maybe, are those who do it without the sheep even realizing it. If the sheep take a moment to hear and recognize their voices, the sheep aren’t deceived; they know the sound of the true shepherd’s voice when they hear it. But, are these thieves so sneaky, so deceptive, and have access to advertising budgets worth billions of dollars, so much so, that the sheep are tempted to accept what they claim to offer without even having to hear their voice? Are we so used to expecting regularity and sameness, predictability and assurance, that we don’t even realize who we’re following? Who are our bandits and thieves in our day?
Who should we consider to be false shepherds in our lives? What are the Powers of our day offering us, and what do we believe because of their influence?
Jesus uses harsh language here. He calls them as he sees them, thieves and bandits. These are serious accusations. But I want to encourage you not to put words into Jesus’ mouth. Jesus does not call them evil; only deceptive. He does not call the situation hopeless, only pointless. The Powers that try to define our identity are only as powerful and as harmful as we enable them to be. To see this, we need to look again at the analogy.
The thieves and bandits enter the sheepfold, but there is no mention of them exiting or leading the sheep anywhere. In order for the sheep to go anywhere, there’s only one way out - through the gate. So the thieves and the bandits are stuck inside the sheepfold, with the rest of the sheep. Going nowhere. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a sheepfold; as a city-kid, I can tell you that I never have. But I do remember the yearly field trip that my parents would take us to the State Fair when we were kids, where farmers from all over the state would come to show their livestock. My brothers and sisters and I were in awe of the pigs and ducks and cows and sheep, and we were presented with a challenge that we were not used to dealing with - a veritable maze and obstacle course of mounds of hay, piles of wool, and well, let’s just call them warm land mines that would mark our tennis shoes as “city kids” for weeks after. And imagine the smells and sounds of these temporary homes for the livestock.
I’d guess that is similar to what a sheepfold would be like. But the sheep would be gathered together in one place, trampling what little vegetation there would be into a slush of mud. The sheep would feel safe there, but they’d hardly be nourished.
And that’s why the shepherd would open the gate and let the sheep out to the pasture to graze, get a little fresh air, encounter new things.
The thieves of our day would be just as happy if we never went out that gate - if we just spent our days looking down, pawing at the mud, and consuming plenty of red dye number 40 and mono-sodium glutamate.
But. The pasture is Out There.
Jesus says that he came to offer us abundant life - but that life is not in the sheepfold with the thieves and the bandits. It’s out there. Out there with the wolves, and the hot sun and the occasional thunderstorm. Yes. But out there with the cool breeze, the clean water, the nourishment that will bring us life.
There is pasture OUT THERE. Abundant life is OUT THERE.
The faith community at Broadstreet Ministry in Philadelphia did a strange thing when they decided to refurbish an old church in the middle of downtown Philadelphia. They tore out all of the pews, and put in chairs. They turned the chairs in the opposite direction - away from the pulpit and the choir loft - facing out - out towards the city - the place where the homeless sleep, where children go hungry, where gun violence destroys the future of their teens. But also where they met Andre, a formerly homeless man who now works in a halfway house to help others get out of homelessness. Also where the sides of buildings covered in murals attest to the creativity of Philadelphia’s people. Where Jesus has said there is life. They turned their chairs to face Out There.
We want to stay in here - where there are familiar slogans and the food tastes the same and everything is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Where we don’t have to do the work of defining ourselves - because the Powers of corporations and political structures and cultural assumptions will do it for us.
Do we want to be satisfied? Eat a Snickers bar. Do we want to feel “worth it?” Try L’Oreal products. Do we want to “get more?” Get a T-mobile cell phone. Do we want to feel valued among our peers? Get a PhD and a 4.0 or drive a Mercedes and make a six-figure salary.
And these aren’t inherently evil things. They’re just things that are tools, sometimes useful tools - but if we let them, they can claim to define us, claim to offer us things that they can’t really give us, and can make us feel complacent, completely content pacing our hallways, staring at the floor, wearing out the ground below us. That’s not life; that’s just existing.
Following God is not easy. There will be stones that trip us up, thorns that will tear at our ankles, and a wilderness that will make us seem lost. We’ll encounter painful relationships, we’ll fail, we’ll lose some money and trust someone we shouldn’t. But, God promises abundant life - not a safe life, not a secure life, not a comfortable life - a life of joy and belly laughs and deep deep feeling. And God promises to be with us through it all.
But in order for us to experience this abundant life, we have to step out of that pen and get into the pasture. May we all choose to follow the voice of the One who can lead us to an adventurous and abundant life.
Let it be so.
Thanks be to God.
** Quotations taken from "John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist" by Warren Carter