Here's my sermon for this morning, based on the John 10:1-10 text (in which Jesus declares, "I am the Gate for the sheep."). I made use of some images, so I embedded those in the sermon text at roughly the correct places.
Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
"I am the gate for the sheep," Jesus says. "I am the gate." The Gospel of John is punctuated by seven famous "I AM" statements, from "I am the bread of life" to "I am the true vine." Perhaps "I am the gate" is not the most familiar, since it's not quite as dramatic as "I am the light of the world" or "I am the resurrection and the life."
When you hear our gospel reading this morning, with its talk of sheep and shepherds, bandits and gatekeepers, you may be expecting to hear another famous "I AM" statement: "I am the good shepherd." In fact, that statement comes just after the end of today's gospel reading. But this morning, Jesus does not identify himself as the good shepherd. Instead, he wants us to see him as the gate for the sheep.
I don't know about you, but I'm not very familiar with sheep farming. Perhaps some of you grew up on farms or in farming communities. Maybe you raised sheep. But I suspect that, like me, many of you are more familiar with government contractors than you are with nomadic shepherds.
For many of us, the agricultural language that would have been so familiar to Jesus' followers is worlds away from our own experience. When we think of gates, is this what comes to mind? A departure gate? Jesus saying, "I am the gate for the airline commuters?" And then maybe we could rewrite Jesus' parable: "Truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the airport through the TSA security checkpoint but sneaks in another way is a threat and a terrorist. Please report any suspicious activity to airport personnel." That doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?
I think we often read this passage in John like it's describing airport security. You have to go through the checkpoint - pass a test - in order to get to God. When Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father except through me," we interpret that to mean that the "right people," the ones who believe in Jesus, are allowed past the checkpoint, while the "wrong people" are kept out. That's how TSA works, right? After all, the TSA, the security checkpoints, all the precautions we have to go through every time we want to fly - that's all intended to keep the wrong people, the "bad guys," out.
To be honest, I don't think Jesus would have used airport security as a way to describe himself. I don't think Jesus intended for us to focus on excluding others. I don't think the purpose of the gate was to be closed against the "wrong people." I'm not sure there were any "wrong people" in Jesus' eyes.
Maybe we do need to let ourselves sink into the language of the nomadic shepherds from Jesus' time. The sheepfold was not a permanent structure, fixed in place. Shepherds would travel with their flocks from location to location, looking for the best places to graze and for good sources of water. The shepherd would build a fence or wall of brush to enclose the sheep and keep them safe at night.
Jesus reminds us of this nomadic way of life in our gospel reading when he says, "The sheep hear the shepherd's voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." The sheepfold is not a permanent destination for the sheep; the shepherd leads them out through the gate and on to a new pasture. Whether going in or coming out, the gate is the open door that lets the sheep follow the shepherd's caring guidance.
If we are the sheep and the Lord is our shepherd, as Psalm 23 says so beautifully, then we can learn something from this nomadic lifestyle. Jesus, the gate, isn't the way into a permanent heavenly resting place. Our shepherd is constantly leading us on to new and better pastures. Sometimes, the gate lets us in to a safe place to rest; other times, the gate lets us out into the wider world, following and trusting the shepherd.
Having God as our shepherd and Jesus as the gate is vastly different from our experiences with airport security. God is not creating a "checkpoint," to only let through those who follow the rules and to keep out undesirables. And God is not letting us in to a permanent pasture-like heaven. Being one of God's sheep means being on the move, being led out into the world. The gate is open to us both coming and going.
Above all, having God as our shepherd means we are watched over, cared for, and loved. God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God welcomes us, opening the gate for us again and again. Today, God opens the gate for a large group of our children to receive communion for the first time. God welcomes all of us to the table, to the baptismal font. God welcomes us to worship. Then God welcomes us back into the world God made, leading us out through the gate to take to others the same love and care we have received.
In the housing development where my husband grew up, there was a road that led into the neighborhood. At the entrance, there was a large sign that said "Nellie Gail Ranch" - the name of the community. On either side of the road were large metal gates, wide enough to stretch across the road. But these gates literally could not be closed - they had no hinges. They were bolted to the ground. The gates were there to make you feel welcome as you arrived. These gates were not capable of keeping anyone out - their purpose was to welcome people in.
Jesus says, "I am the gate for the sheep." Jesus is the invitation, the open door that welcomes us into God's loving care. Jesus is the gate that lets us into God's pasture, and Jesus is the gate that sends us back into the world. Amen.