By Pastor John Johnson

Helping the Shepherd

May 3, 2020

NRS John 10:1 "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.

Words of our Lord and Savior as related in the Gospel according to John; thanks be to God.

And my personal prayer: May the words of my mouth and more importantly the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your site. Amen.

Since today’s Gospel reading contains some rather confusing allusions to a shepherd, sheep, a sheepfold and a gate, it will not surprise that our Psalm for today, in which I hope you will join with me at the end of my message, is the familiar Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Were we physically in church, we would sing one of several hymns based on that Psalm, which is somewhat redundant: Psalms are songs.

And songs, or rather a particular song’s lead in words, what I think are properly called, its verse, can, I hope, help me to slide into the beginning of what I want to say. Songs often do that for me. Some of you would know the song; it’s from the original stage version, but is not in the movie version, of “The Sound of Music.” It is a reprise sung by the character, Maria, of “You are sixteen, going on seventeen,” originally sung in both versions by a young boy to a young girl, and these are words from the verse in that stage version reprise:

“A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it - A song's not a song 'til you sing it.”

Those words came to me as an indirect way, or maybe a “mirror image way,” of recognizing the underlying merit of an idea in literary criticism dating mainly (as I recall) to the 1980’s or ’90’s, though actually proposed in the 1960’s, known as deconstructionism. Deconstructionism was one of those ideas described as “post-modern,” and while there was a great deal, some of which I think is real nonsense, involved in it, as I understood and understand it, there was one incontrovertible truth that I would express as:

A book is no book ‘till you read it.

A book is no book ‘till you read it. And if that seems obvious, underlying the concept is that the meaning a writer intends to convey is not necessarily the meaning an individual reader will get from it. Moreover, different readers, because of their different social experiences or nationalities or cultures or races — and I’ll defend that, — might understand the same book differently.

Actually, let me give a very unfortunate example that I think has imposed a real loss on American culture and literature. Previously considered one of the truly great pieces of American literature, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ — Mark Twain’s — greatest work, Huckleberry Finn is now rejected because one of the book’s characters uses the “N” word in a passage clearly designed to be critical of racism. Yet because some do not get that — and because some of the rest of us do not have the life experience to understand why those who might not care to look to what Twain meant have their attitude, — Huckleberry Finn is no longer part of high school reading lists, nor of “great books” programs.

But we are not “gathered” to discuss literature; we are gathered to try to understand what God is saying to us through the Scriptures people of faith have handed to us over more than one thousand years of its writing, and in this context, a point I want to make is that an important part of trying to understand Scripture is to try to grasp how it would have been understood by those for whom it was first written. And, let me go a step further, in order to grasp what the Gospels tell us Jesus said, we need to try to imagine ourselves in the same position as those to whom Jesus was speaking, and, similarly, to understand what the writers of the Epistles in the New Testament were saying, we need to try to know something about those to whom they were writing.

“A bell is no bell ’til you ring it,” but to draw on the old saw, “If a tree falls in in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Might I suggest also, that, a bell is no bell ’til that ring is heard.

Scripture is just ink on a page or pixels on a screen, until we read it, but when we read it, we bring understandings arising from our life experiences, from our family up-bringing, from our educations, often very much from our ethnic or national origins; we bring to reading Scripture what we otherwise sense or know or have experienced. I remember a Korean colleague in seminary commenting on a Pacific Islander’s trying to make sense of “white as snow” in the Isaiah 1:18 passage, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” (King James Version). According to this Korean student, it was necessary to retranslate the passage for those Pacific Islanders into “white as rice.”

I am led into all this, because I had a very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful time trying fully to grasp what Jesus was saying, or rather, to grasp part of what Jesus was saying, in today’s Gospel reading. Not to be sheepish, and that is my outrageous pun for today, Jesus’ listeners, or at least the writer of the Gospel of John’s original audience, must have gotten fuller meaning than can I out of “thief or bandit” and “gate” and “sheepfold” the like, and my going academic and consulting a commentary on “John,” simply disclosed that biblical scholars do not have a commonly shared understanding of what Jesus or John was trying to say in what we have read from John today.

Now, what we have read today is precisely and exactly what the Church at large will read today, and if they are truthful with themselves, I suspect thousands of other preachers will find themselves as uncertain as those scholars and I as to exactly what the message as understood by Jesus’s and the writer of John’s audiences would have been.

Which perhaps doesn’t matter, because the writer of John’s next verse, not included in our reading, has Jesus saying this:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Now whatever other theological issues Jesus or the writer of John might have been trying to convey in the sheepfold and shepherd and gate imagery (and I believe there is more), this says all I believe you and I need to know: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

“Lays down his life” is something many early Christians did in order not to turn their backs on their belief; they laid down their lives for, or at least were persecuted for, their adherence to their faith in Christ, and our Epistle lesson today from 1 Peter alludes to that quite directly. This is a wonderful passage that I want to read to you and I regret that I cannot be placing it  in front of you as I speak, so that you could follow with me:

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22 "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." 23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. [emphasis added]

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.  That had real meaning to those early Christians, for the pain was not a matter of inconvenience; it could be a matter of physical threat and even death.

Which is to say, pain is relative.  Those of us — from amongst all of us who are so observing — those of us who think we are doing something special by “bearing the pain” of the restrictions on where we can go, and, to an extent, on what we can do — are hardly “suffering unjustly,”

Now, as I say repeatedly, we are not called, most of us, to suffer or risk our lives; yet some, firemen, EMT’s, police men and women, doctors and nurses, prison guards, are in fact doing that regularly. Thankfully, at least some in the country are recognizing that fact right now, as we go through the COVID-19 pandemic.

And all of us, at least most of us, are in-fact being asked to put others ahead of ourselves, or let me rephrase: being asked to give up some of our freedom of movement and of assembly, both of which are huge and hugely important freedoms, the latter of which is clearly recognized in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, being asked to give up some of our freedom of movement and assembly

for the purpose of helping to protect others of our good shepherd’s sheep.

Unfortunately, political polarization is a real thing in the United States, such that even this world-wide pandemic and how we react to it is too often viewed through lenses of Republican or Democrat, anti- or pro- Donald Trump. I am asking that you and I first always see, read, hear through the lens, through the perspective, of followers of Jesus Christ!

There are legitimate, very legitimate, arguments to be made from legal and medical and economic and social and sociological and mental health perspectives for and against the specifics of what has been done, could have been done, and should now be done with regards to many things concerning this pandemic and how we respond to it; and there can indeed be differences as to how Christians from different professional or cultural experiences, might favor or disfavor many aspects, including the economic and social, of what has been done, could have been done, and should now be done. Yet on the fundamental question of whether or not the Christian should follow restrictions we might find over done or unnecessary or burdensome, I think the answer can only come from, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Or maybe I am emphasizing that verse we did not read too much, for in the very last verse of what we did read, Jesus said:

“I came that they” — “they,” meaning ‘us sheep’ — “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

And Jesus wants this for all His sheep, without specifying age or underlying medical condition.

Our deprivations are hardly laying down our lives, but if we want to understand what Jesus wants of us, surely we must want that others “may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus surely wanted those to whom he spoke then, and we to whom he speaks today through the Gospel of John, to share in his desire that all of God’s children “may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“OK, John (John Johnson, that is); what does this have to do with ‘You Are Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “A bell is no bell ’til you ring it”?

Fair question; God is great. The next line of that verse the movie failed to include is:

And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay / Love isn’t love / Till you give it away.

Let us not let the love we profess to feel for others, love for our neighbor, simply stay within us as the world endures this pandemic; let us instead seek to use that love to help others to know the abundant life the Good Shepherd wants for them.

And in His name. Amen.

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