Image: “The Good Shepherd” by Sadao Watanabe, 1977
by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
They gathered for Friday prayer, safe and warm in their worshipping community. They gathered for Wednesday night Bible study, safe and warm in their prayerful community. They gathering for Shabbat, to give thanks to God, safe and warm in the refuge of their synagogue.
Last Friday, 50 people were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand, during which two mosques were attacked. These events -mass shootings – are becoming so familiar to us, that often they pass by us without making a mark on our daily lives, without impacting us except maybe to say, “Wow. That is terrible.” and then continue our daily lives. I wanted to share a story this morning as a way to remember that these 50 were men, women and children… husbands, wives, gated athletes and students, doctors, teachers, loving parents and grandparents. Each victim was an individual life, a brother or sister in our human family.
Amjad Hamid was a 57 year old cardiologist who moved to New Zealand from Palestine because his family wanted a better future.
His wife Hanan said she and her husband emigrated to Christchurch 23 years ago.
“It’s terrible … we were hoping to find a better future for us and for the children we were planning to have.” On Friday, Amjad’s family gathered to support each other, but it was tough. “This is meant to be a safe country,” his son said. “New Zealand is changing forever.” (1)
All things in our lives – our progress, our growth, our lives of faith, our relationships – depend on our sense of safety. When we feel unsafe, we are unable to grow spiritually, emotionally and relationally. That is why shootings in churches, mosques and synagogues hit at our very core. If we are not safe here, where are we safe?
So, we turn to our scriptures and seek some answers. And our selection from Psalm 71 speak to our need for safety:
1 In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. 2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. 3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Now, a refuge is a place or state of safety; a place of protection and shelter; a refuge is security and safety; a relief from the distress and chaos and scary things of this world. Protection. Loving support. Peaceful calm and assurance that we will be okay.
When I was living in Kona, I had a virtual ZOO in my yard – turkeys, pigs, feral cats and chickens called my yard their home. And one day, I saw for myself an image of God as refuge. The rain started to fall in my yard and the little chicks that usually scurry around looking for food in my yard, scurried instead toward their mother, who opened her wings and took the three of them underneath her… and there she sat, with her chicks under the comfort and protection of her weight, her feathers and her love.
Now, of course, this is not an original image of God’s refuge; Jesus himself described it in Matthew 23: 37 when he lamented,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
But me being a city girl, I had never seen the drama played out in such a way, and when I did, suddenly it meant something more to be than just nice words or an ancient image. “How long have I longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” That’s the refuge, the protection, the safety and the love we seek. That’s the image of God made real in our lives!
One of the dangers of retaining the ancient translations of ancient texts is that often the images used by the biblical writers and storytellers are ancient images! They were crafted to explain God to a particular people in a particular time, in our case an agrarian (farming) society and the longer we live outside the “country” life, beyond our ancestors context, the more these images lose their meaning. So, today we look at our scripture from John, beginning at verse 1-10.
In this section, Jesus explains himself as both the shepherd and as the gate for the sheep. Some scholars have suggested that when he begins, the shepherd metaphor was not connecting with his audience, so he changed the metaphor to further explain his point.
John 10: 1-10
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
The sheep here are us – the followers – and we are in danger of “thieves and bandits” – other leaders who will lead us astray, so we need to trust in our own shepherd, who is Jesus. And in verse 4, this trust is validated as “he brings the sheep out of the fold and then goes before them. The sheep do not simply escape some confinement or hasten out of the fold to brave the larger world on their own. Their shepherd leads them out and then goes before them, in front of them, to lead. The sheep are not abandoned.” (2)
And then he changes his metaphor – suddenly he is no longer the shepherd, but the gate!!! – He may be using his own ancient text, echoing the words of Psalm 118:19-20:
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
7So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
This image has been used as a way to identify who is saved and who is not saved. For generations, readers and interpreters of this text have used it to justify their own biases: If Jesus is a gate, he opens for us and closes out others…. But by understanding the translation of the Greek word “sothesetai” in v. 9 provides a different idea: This word (sothesetai ) is written here “will be saved” (Whoever enters by me will be saved..) but this word actually means “they will be kept safe” Whoever enters by me will be kept safe. There is safety in coming into the fold. There is safety in our community, by incorporating ourselves into the family. Jesus promises to keep us safe. (3) And what is the ultimate goal? Not salvation in our contemporary understanding, but SAFETY, REFUGE, PASTURE!
9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be kept safe, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
This is my favorite verse in the whole bible, and one that has guided my life and my ministry: Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly! For all those who believe we are to suffer needlessly, for all of those who flog themselves and deny themselves happiness and joy and celebration, for the sake of PIETY… Jesus came that we may have ABUNDANT LIFE!
One of the images that helps illustrate this to me is our celebration of Holy Communion. As I distribute the bread, and each little bit is picked out from the loaf, and as a child approaches me, they reach out their little hand and rip off a huge chunk of bread or return again for seconds or thirds or fourths, often to the parents’ embarrassment. But this is what Jesus wants for us: Jesus came that we may have life and have it in abundance – Jesus wants us to enjoy this life and everything it has to offer, not to the exclusion of our relationships, not for the sake of excess and pride, but true joy in all life has to offer. Jesus wants us to take a bit piece of life and to enjoy it with reverence.
That is the pasture, the refuge: the good life. And for those of us in the fold, Jesus as the gate, leads the way.
And as the early church knew – and we know in our dispersed and disparate community – we must be in community – in the fold – to experience the fullness of this abundant life. Our relationships within our Christian family are vital to our relationship with God. Our relationship with our human family – our brothers and sisters from all faiths, all parts of the world, all beliefs and ideas – our relationships with others is vital to our abundant lives. Jesus knew this when he noted the “most important” commandment “Love God” and the second “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Each action, each happening in another’s life, affects the fold, no matter how different we are from one another. We are all part of the family. The gospel writer
John wrote in the first century to a number of Christian communities both in Israel and beyond, communities that were becoming more and more ethnically and geographically diverse. (4) And John was communicating with them the Promise of God: God’s love in Jesus Christ is for you (you, your children and for those far away.) In our church, we recognize that the Promise of God is also for US: God’s love in Jesus Christ is for all of us, in all our diversity: Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly.
Together, in this community, we celebrate our connection with one another and with Jesus who shepherds us, leads us on the path and leads us into the good life.
- New Zealand Herald, found on https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12213358
- Commentary on Gospel by Sarah Henrich, Working Preacher, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/15/2011
- Brian Stoffregen, found at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john10x1.htm
- “Jesus the Good Shepherd: Reflections on John 10:1-18”By Alyce M. McKenzie, May 08, 2011, found on http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Jesus-the-Good-Shepherd-Alyce-