The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Year A
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known informally as Good Shepherd Sunday because the Collect of the Day and the appointed readings focus on God’s shepherd-like care for us. Perhaps the three best-known Christian texts are the Lord’s Prayer, the first verse of Amazing Grace, and the 23rd Psalm. And perhaps the most beloved and comforting image of Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we acknowledge Jesus is our shepherd we infer we are his sheep. We sense Jesus cares about us passionately with a love that never flags or fades.
When I went with a group of pilgrims to walk the Way of St. Cuthbert, our plane landed in Glasgow and we boarded a charted bus, which took us west toward our first destination – the Isle of Iona. In a very short time we were out of the urban region of Glasgow and travelling through the incredibly beautiful Loch Lomond National Park. I can still picture in my mind’s eye the first time it happened... when one of my bus mates spotted a sheep with a little baby lamb nestled between its front legs. We all threw ourselves against the bus window to get a look, our smartphones capturing picture after picture after picture. It was so cute and so heart-warming and so terribly Scottish.
We continued to spot sheep (by the herdfull) throughout the day as we made our way to the city of Oban for our first night’s stay. And while the excitement of seeing sheep abated somewhat, it was still a thrill. Over the course of our pilgrimage we did more than spot sheep from inside a bus, we actually walked with them, around them, past them, and through them. And not just sheep… also goats and cows and horses and pretty much any kind of livestock you care to name. Toward the end of the pilgrimage I became so desensitized to seeing sheep I jokingly said the only way I would bother to stop and take a picture is if I saw ten sheep standing in line doing the Macarena!
In today’s read Jesus says he leads his flock to the sheepfold. The sheep enter the fold through the gate, which the shepherd then guards. Sheepfolds in Jesus’ day were stone-walled enclosures varying in size, but most roughly about the area of a tennis court. They were large enough for several shepherds to safe-keep their flock through the night hours. In the morning, each shepherd made a specific sound to call his flock out through the gate and only his sheep heeded the call.
It is a comforting image… the voice of Jesus calling us to enter into place or a way of being where, in times of danger, we will be safe and then calling us out of the fold into lush meadows when the time is right for us to flourish again. This day finds us sheltering within the sheepfold of our individual homes. God is keeping us safe. Thanks be to God! We long for the day our Shepherd will let us know it is safe to go out again to enjoy the green pastures and still waters we all long for.
Jesus uses a second image in today’s reading to describe himself, one a little bit more obscure but equally as powerful: “I am the gate for the sheep.”
Britain is crisscrossed by an amazing system of National Trails, of which the Way of St. Cuthbert is one. These trails often go right through privately owned property, much of which is pastureland. And these fields are divided, some by fences and many by stone walls. Every time we came to a fence or a wall we encountered some kind of gate. Some were little more than a rickety A-frame ladder, which required a ballerina-like maneuver at the top so you could turn and descend down the other side. Others involved a narrow zig-zag easily navigated by a human, but far too difficult for an animal. And still others involved a latched gate. Far too late in the pilgrimage it occurred to me I should have been taking pictures of the different latches we encountered. The variety was endless and some took considerable time to figure out how to work.
My fellow pilgrim Dale Custer observes every time he encounters a gate while hiking he realizes it is there either to keep something in or to keep something out. I remember approaching one gate as we walked the Way that had a sign on it: “Warning! The bull is in the field!” I don’t know exactly what happens when one encounters a bull in the field, but I was not the least bit curious to learn, so I kept a sharp lookout as I made my way across the field as expeditiously as possible.
I suppose most associate people associate the image of Jesus as the Gate with a kind of exclusive claim some Christian believe we have… only those who can name Jesus as their savior will be able to pass through the gate that leads to eternal life. But during these days and given what we are experiencing I wonder if a different interpretation might be more accurate. The gate represents the way you pass through the thing dividing what was and what will be. We know what life was like before COVID 19. We have no idea what it will be like afterward, let alone when it will begin. We are now (and will be for sometime) in a between space and time. We are in the gate, which is not where we were and not where we are going to be.
If Jesus is the gate, then we should expect Jesus to be present in this moment in a powerful and personal way. And this is exactly what many of us are experiencing. Our faith means more to us now than ever before. We are turning to prayer – especially the Daily Offices – like never before. We experience Jesus as being close in a way we have not experienced before. We are in a gateway time between what was and what will be and because Jesus is the Gate we are in Jesus as never before.
It seems impossible today is the eighth Sunday we have not been able to gather for public worship. We have come a long way and most likely we still have a long way to go. I am so proud of how all of you are adapting to this time in the gate. I am so honored to be able to gather daily with many of you as the Good Shepherd leads us into the fold in the evening and calls us out in the morning. Like never before, the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.