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 About halfway through Easter we find ourselves here again on Good Shepherd Sunday. And yet it’s not really appropriate to call it Good Shepherd Sunday this year because the reading gets cut off before Jesus says his famous line, “I am the good shepherd.” While there is a brief mention of the shepherd in contrast to a thief or a stranger, Jesus’s actual self-titling is “I am the gate.”

I’d guess that the notion of Jesus being a gate makes a lot of us uncomfortable. I’d guess despite any deeply ambivalent feelings about being compared to sheep in the hyper-individualistic white West, we’d much rather talk about Jesus as the Good Shepherd rather than as something specifically constructed to keep things locked out…or locked in.

Now, we could pick this passage apart using more academically focused knowledge based on biblical hermeneutics and the many theories of what John was really trying to say to the community who first received this gospel. But you’re not here for an academic lecture, so nah.

I suppose we could also imagine that the sheepfold is the church, Jesus is the gate, we’re the sheep and thieves and bandits are…I don’t know, mean people, an evil society, maybe even bad pastors in the church (eek!), or any number of things that seek to distract us from Jesus and the abundant life he promises. But you’re not here for a fifth-rate Sunday school lesson, so nah.

Let’s consider this through a more mature lens.

So one thing that is important to know is that Jesus is not speaking to his disciples here, but to the religious authorities who’d just cast the man born blind out of the synagogue, as we heard back in Lent. And something that I found super interesting from a word study perspective is that the word used for bringing out the sheep in the passage we just read is the same word that was used for the man being cast out. One of the ways some scholars read the Gospel of John is called the two-level reading strategy, and this imagines that the stories contained in John are mirroring the story of the community which composed and first heard the Gospel of John, people who may have felt they were cast out of the synagogue. Now history does not clearly support the notion that Jesus-people were actively kicked out of synagogues by not-Jesus-people, but remember what Al said last week about fear not making us particularly rational or easy to work with. People who felt threatened by the Empire’s crackdown on their faith, or who were possibly spending a lot of time arguing with their families and religious leaders may not have the resources to effectively manage their anxiety. It would be such a comfort to hear this passage which suggests that those who may identify with the formerly blind man are not in fact cast out but are being called out by their good shepherd.

And it would be easy to imagine that those people insist that Jesus was the gate to access the true understanding of the faith. The other teachers here are imagined as thieves and bandits. You come through the Jesus-gate or you don’t come in at all.

Oof! Not a good place to start when we are actually concerned about crafting a better relationship with our Jewish forebears in the post-Holocaust world.

We’re gonna have to get creative, then. Back to sheep and disciples.

The sheep of this story are kept in a sheepfold and promised good pasture. By contrast, in Chapter 14 disciples are promised rooms in the Father’s house. Except “rooms” is a poor translation. The Greek is really better translated “abiding-place.”

Put a pin in that, will you? We’re coming back to it.

Let’s talk about sheep first.

And let’s get the most important fact out of the way: Sheep are not stupid.

They’re as smart as cows, almost as smart as pigs. They have excellent hearing and peripheral vision. They recognize not just voices but faces and facial expressions. They can be taught their own names. They follow leaders, but they also care for one another. When they graze, you’ll see them look up constantly, checking for trouble. When they’re separated from one another, they become distressed. This can be alleviated by showing them a mirror. The sight of another sheep gives them comfort.

Sheep breeds who don’t have strong herding instincts do exist…in places where they have no natural predators.

It’s sad that we often use the word sheep as a slur, when the kind of behaviour described above seems to me to be a good model for Christians.

Jesus calls the gathered faithful his sheep, and sheep take care of their own, find comfort in one another, and know one another and the one who cares for them. But many of us might feel awkward about self-identifying as sheep.

Although we certainly do love us some Psalm 23, where we explicitly identify God as our shepherd. Note the movement of this psalm, from sheep and shepherd to host and guest. The Jewish study Bible I consulted says this may be the result of two earlier psalms being smushed together, or it may have been an attempt to describe the emotional journey of the Jewish people moving from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem and the temple. This beloved prayer from our Jewish forebears shows us the God Jesus knew intimately: loving guide and protector, gracious host, giver of abundant blessing and eternal life.

So whether we like the analogy or not, we are like sheep: not only promised a container in community but good pasture outside the fold. In the sheepfold is love, safety, solidarity, chosen family. In the pasture beyond is danger, yes, but also continuous renewal. It’s necessary to travel back and forth.

But what about the gate? How does one gain access to the fold?

Well, we are the sheep of the Jesus-fold. He is the one who knows us by name, the one who leads us from exile, the one who feeds, cares, and protects. Remember he says that there are other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I’m sure we’ll know them when we see them out in the pasture lands.

Now, remember the movement of the psalm. The faithful heart moves from sheep to honoured guest.

In Chapter 14, we learn disciples have abiding-places, not a sheepfold. Apparently, disciples exist in a place where they don’t have to go in and out. They just abide. God’s endless love is self-sustaining, and it’s us-sustaining.

You see this Sunday has another name, besides Good Shepherd Sunday, or even Good Gate Sunday.

It’s Vocations Sunday, the Sunday where we lift up the priesthood of all believers, the ministry every single one of you is called to embody in the world.

You may think, does a sheep have a vocation? All creatures have a vocation.

So, let’s take care of one another. Let’s keep watch. Let’s listen for the shepherd’s voice, and not to the voice of the thief who steals by stealth, or the robber who plunders through violence.

But let’s also remember why we do it.

So I’ll close with this parable from the 11th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur.

There are two lovers in Central Asian myth: Majnun and Layla. Lord Byron called them the Eastern Romeo and Juliet. Majnun is so in love with Layla that he loses his mind – but they’re not allowed to be together. In Sufi teaching, they’re a cipher for the soul’s relationship with God, one of wild unfulfilled longing.

In the parable, Majnun disguises himself with a sheepskin and slips among a flock to get close to Layla. When he gets close to her, he smells her perfume and is so overcome with desire that he passes out and has to be revived. Later, he sits with a group and one of them comments on the ragged sheepskin he’s still wearing.

Majnun responds, in Sholeh Wolpé’s translation:

“Not every garment is worthy of my beloved. Nothing suits me better than sheepskin. …Inside such a coat I caught the fragrance of my beloved, so now how can I ask for anything else?”