Into the Sheepfold

Dateline ISTANBUL: Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week, while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 meters to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran, but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived, newspaper reports said yesterday. Shepherds from Ikizler village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free, the Radikal Daily said. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000. (Taken from the Peninsula an English daily in Qatar.)

So what do you think about sheep, shepherds and the kingdom of God? These shepherds left the sheep unattended to eat breakfast. The result was the death of many of the sheep.

There are a lot of comparisons between sheep in need of a shepherd and the church and the people of God in need of a shepherd.

Sheep we have been told, are dumb. Sheep get compared to human beings because sometimes human beings behave badly, and in exhibiting their bad behavior, they are dumb and, therefore, need a shepherd.

Here are some characteristics of sheep. See if you can find yourself in any of these attributes.

  • 1 billion sheep in the world and 900 different breeds.
  • Sheep have best friends.
  • Sheep have excellent hearing and poor vision.
  • Sheep have excellent long term memory with a memory system similar to humans.
  • Lambs identify their mothers by the mothers bleat.
  • There are additional characteristics of sheep that make them seem almost human.
  • Sheep are social animals, they follow a leader.
  • Sheep do not think well for themselves.
  • Sheep are easily frightened.
  • Sheep are vulnerable, a lost lamb is quickly a dead lamb.
  • Although social, sheep are completely self-centered.
  • Sheep have short attention spans.

Hmm, a lot of similarity to humans, don’t you think? Which one of these characteristics do you identify with as a human being, in need of shepherd – in need of a leader who will take care of you?

In the first ten verses of the tenth chapter of John, the apostle writes about the “sheepfold” and “Jesus being the gate”. What if we saw the church as the sheepfold and Jesus as the gate to the church?

How do we, inside the church, treat the folks who are outside the sheepfold?

Are the people on the outside looking in as content as the folks inside looking out?

We need to remember that the sheepfold can hold people in or keep something out. To those outside the sheepfold what do they see when they look past the gate? And, if Jesus is the gate, what do they see when they look past Jesus?

When I was the pastor at another church, the congregation experienced a growth period. We were in a changing neighborhood, and as the neighborhood changed we had lots of new folks coming around our sheepfold, and they started wandering in. Two people in particular, intrigued me.

We had a Wednesday night service with about thirty or forty folks attend on a regular basis. The service was a half-hour long, with a hymn or two, a little scripture and short meditation that gave people a chance to dialogue about the lesson. We had communion at every service.

One night a young man showed up. He was probably in his thirties. He was nicely dressed, complete with necktie. He seemed distracted by the scriptural intro that I read and wasn’t really paying much attention to the dialogue. But when I said the Eucharistic prayer and invited people to come forward for communion he was very attentive. When he came to the communion rail and knelt he began to weep. Immediately after he received communion he left.

I made a number of attempts to talk to him but he always came in after the service had started and he always left after communion. He always wept when he received the bread and the wine.

The story of the other person who intrigued me is as follows. One Wednesday night a young lady came in to a service, sat in the back pew on the aisle, nearest the closest exit. She left immediately after the dialogue sermon. This behavior was repeated every Wednesday for nearly six weeks. I tried to catch her and talk to her but she always left right after the sermon.

Then one week she came to communion. Then one week she moved from the back pew to a pew about half way down the aisle. Then she started staying until the end of the service, where I was able to shake her hand and talk with her for a moment or two.

After a few more weeks I asked her if I could come by and talk with her about joining the church. When I went for my visit I asked her why she sat where she sat and why she took so long to come to communion and let folks talk to her.

She told me that she was a life long Lutheran and that after she left home and went to college and got a job she had done a lot of things that she was ashamed of and she was fearful that God would not want her anymore.

She stood outside of the sheepfold, and in spite of what she had been taught as a Lutheran about the grace and love of God, she was afraid to come back through the gate into the sheepfold.

Jesus says the sheep will “hear my voice and they will follow me.” The voice of Jesus is the voice that says: “I love you, I forgive you, you can come through the gate.”

Jeffrey Gallager a Congregationalist pastor from Connecticut wrote this week:

“So tear down the sheepfold, remove the gate, do away with the gatekeeper. Allow the sheep to roam freely in the world and let God be the Good Shepherd of the psalm, roaming with all the sheep, chasing after them with goodness and mercy flowing everywhere.”

Show a gate that isn’t closed anymore. Allow everyone – like the the young woman and young man in my stories – in.