Outside the Sheep Pen
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
If you have never experienced bureaucracy all you need to do is start a new job at a VA hospital. I have worked at two different locations over the years. In both cases, after being hired, I was required to go in at least six weeks prior to my start date, to fill out a mass of paperwork, get my picture taken for an ID, and most recently I even needed fingerprints. All this may not be too unusual but it was much more than was required at any of other hospitals I worked at. No other facility needed six weeks or more to process paperwork.
What really makes this experience unusual is that in both cases the hospitals were not ready for me on my first day. The ID wasn’t ready because some of the paperwork wasn’t signed off on. The department who was supposed to have this paperwork said they never got it from the previous department. So I spent one week sitting around and observing only wishing I could do more. I spent two weeks doing this at the other facility. This story was a long way of saying that even when you try going through the proper channels it can be difficult.
Jesus says, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate…is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. We are told that there is a certain procedure we are to follow. The shepherd goes in and out the gate while others sneak around it. Life as a sheep isn’t much easier than the bureaucracy of the VA system. It can be difficult to know what we need to do, where we should go. When the shepherd opens the gate, we may be afraid to go outside for we know that beyond the gate wolves are around.
Normally when we listen to this passage we know that we are the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd and gate keeper, and the gate is the path to salvation. The shepherd opens the gate during the day to let the sheep graze. The sheep follow the shepherd in and out of the pen because they trust him. They know him by his voice and he knows them by name.
I’d like to extend this metaphor just a bit; in which we the church are the sheep. We are in the pen because we found salvation through Christ the shepherd and gate keeper. But I wonder if the fence rails of the pen could be the physical walls of this church, in which we are afraid to go beyond them to graze on the goodness of what the Lord has set before us. Instead, we sneak out the gap back in the corner of the pen. We sneak out the back and put on wolves clothing. Instead of the wolves trying to become like us, by putting on sheep’s clothing, we become like them.
We go into the world dressed like a wolf, acting like a wolf, even though we are a sheep by nature. We feel we have to do this because if we let the other wolves know that we were actually sheep, we believe that we will be eaten alive. This is possible because we didn’t go out the gate that the shepherd opened for us; the gate that lets the shepherd know that we need him to watch over us and where we can hear his voice. So we tend to either sneak out the back or stay in the pen afraid to go where we are being called to go. It is in these good pastures that Christ calls us to in which we are given the opportunity to be filled with the presence of God, to be fulfilled by going where God leads us. Often this work includes helping others, living generously, and being kind. We do this even to the point of being vulnerable in which we can be hurt. But we know that the shepherd is nearby, and on the occasions that we do get hurt he is there to help us. The shepherd can help ease our pain as we heal over time.
Now as you may know, sheep are not thought of as smart animals. They will flock together even if they are heading toward danger. If one gets separated from the flock, they are prone to wander and get lost easily. I wonder if it is difficult for sheep to know if they are going out the gate where the shepherd can see them or if they are squeezing through that gap in the fence where they may be surrounded by wolves. The only way they may know is by hearing the voice of their shepherd. If they can hear the shepherd’s voice they know they are in a place where they can find help if needed; where if the shepherd sees them heading toward danger he can call them by name. Sheep actually have the ability to learn their name and respond to a call much like a beloved dog.
When we go out this door today, how do we know if we are going through the gate
or squeezing through the gap? I’d imagine if we do not know our shepherd or his voice we wouldn’t know. If we are not listing to the shepherd and we are not doing the work he wants us to do, grazing in the pasture that he has shown us, then we are just pretending to be sheep in his flock. Or maybe we are pretending to be wolves in the world. Either way, we are not living our lives authentically; we are not listening to what we need to be doing.
When we feel empathy for another, when we see someone who needs help, or even if you see a way to make improvements in a bureaucracy and you take no action or do nothing about these feelings, then you are not listing to your shepherd. Getting to know the voice of the shepherd through prayer, the sacraments, and reading his word, builds trust which makes it easier for us to follow him. Knowing his voice apart from all the wolves who try to mimic him keeps you on the right path or in the
pasture where you will find fulfillment.
This is not easy for us sheep who like to follow the flock, even if it is a flock of wolves in sheep clothing. And it isn’t easy for us sheep who wander away and get lost all too easily. But with some effort, we can learn to listen, to know, and to follow the voice of our shepherd.