The Good Shepherd and The Good Gate

Easter 4A

In the name of the risen Christ, who opens himself to welcome us into the presence of God.  Amen.

I have to begin this morning with an apology to my mother.  She’s probably watching right now, and Mom, I’m sorry.  But I’ve got to tell a story on you.

When my parents were still living in Tennessee, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the little town where they lived.  You could visit the Piggly Wiggly or the Family Dollar, but any kind of shopping and most options for dining were “down the mountain”.  Certainly the quickest ways up and down the mountain were on the Interstate, but depending on where you were going and if you had the time to spare, a more enjoyable passage for me was on the little road that passed through Sewanee – the University of the South (an Episcopal college and seminary) – before meandering down the side of the mountain into the vast flat farmlands below.

On one such trip, Mom kept going on about this gate that she’d found.  A more beautiful, ornate, splendid gate had never before graced the good earth of Tennessee.  Of course, as soon as this began, Michael and I began teasing her mercilessly about her enthusiasm over this gate.  She’d built it up so much that it would have been impossible for the wonders of this gate to match the image she’d portrayed.  But the more we teased her, the more she built it up.  “Just you wait,” she said, “you’ll see.”

After about a half hour of hearing how incredible this gate would be, we started to get close.  She couldn’t remember exactly where it was, so she’d slow down at every driveway – “No, that’s not it,” – and then drive on to the next.  But finally, we made it.  “There it is!” she exclaimed.  We approached this little patch of trees and bushes that sat on either side of the driveway, and as we came around to see this gate of myth and legend, there it was.  A plain old, steel cattle gate like you’d see on every farm and ranch in middle America.

Of course, that wasn’t the gate Mom had in mind, but you should have heard the roars of laughter that came from that car!  Honestly, I don’t remember, I’m sure we did eventually find the gate she was looking for, and I’m sure it was lovely, but we’ll never forget that moment.  And my poor mother…  Now every time Michael and I are with her and we see any sort of plain gate – be it a cattle gate, or the gate to a chain link fence – we proclaim once again, “Did you see that gate!  It was so beautiful!”

It’s a good thing she knows we love her…. 

But I thought of that story again this week as we observe one of the more delightfully quaint unofficial observances of the liturgical cycle, “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Everything about our liturgy today points toward that comforting image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  The Collect of the Day begins, “O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people…”  The Psalm of the day is the that most familiar of Psalms, the 23rd Psalm:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
     I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
     and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
     and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
     I shall fear no evil; *
     for you are with me;
     your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 

Even our closing hymn today seizes on this theme, “Savior, like a shepherd lead us; much we need thy tender care; in thy pleasant pastures feed us; for our use thy folds prepare.”

The image of Jesus as our shepherd is powerful, and rooted in scripture.  But here’s the thing: that’s not what we read today.  In this telling of the spiritual metaphor of sheep and shepherd, Jesus does not identify as the shepherd.  And when the disciples are confused and missing the point he spells it out for them: “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”  Not the one leading the sheep into safety, but the one through whom they go to find safety.

It’s a very different image.

Sometimes, in the course of history, this text has been interpreted as justification for excluding people from the family of faith.  Jesus is the gate.  And when we think of a gate, we tend to picture it closed – as a symbol of exclusion.

But there’s another way of thinking about it.

I’ve often talked about one of my favorite Collects in the Book of Common Prayer – the one that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”  I love the way it takes this instrument of punishment, death, and shame, and turns it into a symbol of love, acceptance, and welcome.  This take on the image shows the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross not as a weak body approaching death, but as an open embrace, with room enough for all of us.

That’s sort of how this image of Jesus as the gate gets shaken up in today’s gospel.  Though we often think of a gate as a way of keeping people and things out, the fact of the matter is, a gate exists to open.  It’s meant to open.  That’s its sole purpose.  If a gate didn’t open, it would just be any other section of the fence.  A continuation of the wall.

To think of Christ as the gate means to imagine that the sole purpose of Christ – the sole purpose of God’s embodiment in the world – is to open.  To open the inside – the place of safety, love, and protection – to the outside.  To provide passage.  To make a path.

That’s an impressive gate.

So if Christ is the gate and the gate allows the shepherds to lead the sheep through Christ, then who are the shepherds?  Who are the ones whose voice the sheep knows?

I think, maybe it’s us.  We are the ones who know the gate.  It’s our job to help those around us to find it – both when it’s time to come in for comfort and safety, and when it’s time to go out for mission and ministry in the wider world.  It’s our job to bring people to Christ.  Whether we’re coming in or going out, it’s our calling to lead people along the pathway that is opened by Christ.

And sure – sometimes we’re the sheep.  Sometimes we’re the ones who would be wandering lost and alone were it not for Christ, the Good Shepherd.  But when we understand the way to go, it’s our responsibility to show others – to lead.

May we so lead.  May we celebrate the gate that’s open and marvel at it – and bring others along to see it and share in its glory.  It’s a really great gate.  It’s worth talking about and leading people to it.  Amen.