As part of our engagement with our placement churches we are given the opportunity to preach (with some coaching from our very helpful and encouraging clergy). So here is Christine’s attempt to make sense of Luke 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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Well, I am a city girl. I grew up in an apartment block wedged in between the motorway and a busy high street, and the only little bit of green was the watercress and chives we grew in a flowerpot on the balcony. No sheep in sight – apart from the little cuddly toy I brought back from a holiday in the countryside, where at least I learned that real animals don’t have a lot in common with Shaun the Sheep.
But I have to admit that it wasn’t until I did a bit of research for this sermon that I learned that sheep stealing is a thing. And I am not talking about sheep stealing in the church here. Yes, there is that thing where the vicar of the newly founded church in the neighbourhood figures out that in order to boost their numbers it is much easier to invite your congregation over than to actually convert people to Christianity. But let’s not open that can of worms; let’s stick to four-legged animals for the moment.
Call me naïve – it never actually occurred to me that there is a lot of profit to be made by stealing actual life sheep from other people’s fields. It’s a big thing though. In the UK there are almost 90000 sheep stolen every year, at a cost of more than £6m to farmers. And apart from insurance, there is not a lot farmers can do about it. You mark your sheep and put a padlock on the gate, but that is not going to stop serious rustlers. So, it is an issue, and it seems it was just as much of an issue at Jesus’ time.
The circumstances were slightly different: Unlike in Cornwall, food and water were quite sparse in the arid climate in Israel, and therefore sheep needed to be moved much more frequently to avoid overgrazing. There were also a lot more predators around: Wolves, panthers, hyenas, jackals, possibly even bears and lions. So, leaving the sheep on their own in an enclosed field was not an option. Shepherds had to be in continuous attendance. During the day they moved the herd around, and to protect them at night they often penned them in in a stone wall enclosure. The only entrance to the enclosure was a simple gap in the wall, and rather than closing it with a gate, the shepherds would personally guard it by settling down for the night right in the gap. The shepherd himself quite literally was the gate – as if to say to any wolf or lion: If you want to get to my sheep, you have to go through me first!
This is the mental image that Jesus tries to evoke when he talks of himself as being the gate of the sheep. He is the sort of shepherd who in order to protect those in his care puts himself in the line of danger. He does not stand far off, but rather, when it comes to it, he leaps right into the breach. This is why he gave his life for us on the cross.
The other interesting thing about these sheepfolds is that they were often shared by several shepherds. The herds would freely mix and needed to be separated out again in the morning. This was possible because up to this day, in the middle east sheep are trained to recognise their shepherds voice. They are normally not herded by driving them from behind, but follow the calls of the shepherd who goes in front. Therefore, they are so used to walking towards their shepherd’s familiar voice, that they can easily be separated just by calling them. Mix-ups are unlikely because the sheep simply do not follow the call of a stranger.
It makes me wonder: Whose voices do we follow?
There is such a plethora of voices around, all of whom claim to lead us in the right direction. We hear of fake news, email scams, we are smothered in political campaigning and commercial advertising. There are differences of opinion on everything, even within the church. Whom can we trust and follow? How can we distinguish between a good shepherd and a thief? It is an age-old question: How do we recognise the voice of God and distinguish it from all the other voices?
Thankfully, wiser people than me have wrestled with this question, one of whom is Ignatius of Loyola. Apart from founding the Jesuit order, he developed an elaborate system of Spiritual Exercises that are designed for people to find their true purpose and calling. A lot of it boils down to the question: How do I know if my plans and desires are in line with God’s purpose, or whether I am being led astray? Ignatius says: you actually already know it. Deep down in your heart you can feel if your plans are good or not. Modern day Jesuits put it like this: “Ignatius realised that if you act in accord with God’s desires for you, you will feel a sense of rightness, tranquillity and peace, what Ignatius called consolation. The main feature of feelings of consolation is that their direction is toward growth, creativity and a genuine fullness of life and love in that they draw us to a fuller, effective, generous love of God and other people, and to a right love of ourselves.”
So note, this is not as simple as “Oh I just do what makes me feel good.” It is not about any sort of selfish short-term gratification. But neither should we make the mistake of thinking that following God has to be onerous and joyless. Because our God is a God of life and resurrection. In his parable, Jesus makes this distinction between himself as the good shepherd and the thieves: The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
There is just one gate, Jesus Christ, but a variety of shepherd’s voices that might be calling us in Christ’s name but also thief’s voices that lead us astray for their own gain. So here is my challenge to you: When you are faced with a decision, when you are unsure what to do, whom to follow, which voice to trust, ask yourself: Does this make me listless and numb or does it fill me with joy and peace? Is it life-giving and life-enhancing, not only for me but also for others?
And actively look for this shepherd’s voice. When you have a moment of quiet, why not look back over your day or your week, and ask yourself: What have I done or experienced that has strangely warmed my heart, that just felt like the right thing to do, that has made me and others come to life? This is when you know that you are following the voice of the good shepherd who wants all his people to have life, and have it abundantly. Amen.