The Sheepfold || Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2011 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10
The Rev. Adam Thomas
Having the flu changed my life. The day was Thursday, March 13th, 2008, and I was sitting on my futon with my computer on my lap. Quite suddenly, I realized how clammy and hot I felt. Half an hour before, I had felt just fine, but in just thirty minutes my insides decided that they needed desperately to become my outsides. I put my computer on the floor, leapt up, and staggered into the bathroom. I was ill for five days, and during that time all I did was sleep and watch my recently acquired complete series of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. For those five days, I did not open the lid of my laptop. I did not press the power button. And I did not log in to the computer game that had dominated my life for nearly two years.
The following Tuesday, when I felt that I could walk around without gripping the furniture for support, I stumbled over to the computer and deleted World of Warcraft from the hard drive. I tossed the game discs in the trash. And in the three years, two months, and two days since contracting the flu bug, I have never logged back into the game. The flu acted as the catalyst for the breaking of my addiction to the computer game. The illness put me on the disabled list for a week right before Easter, but no matter how awful the flu made me feel, I thank God every day for the not-so-gentle push away from the stagnant life I was living. I thank God every day for yanking me out of the comfortable sheepfold that I had built up around me. I thank God every day for pulling me kicking and screaming through the gate, away from my dormant life and toward a life full of God.
This not-so-gentle shove out of the sheepfold happens in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was in southern England, where I spent one windy afternoon dodging the sheep’s ubiquitous droppings while trying to appreciate the mystery of Avebury’s standing stones. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.
So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.
When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, “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.” The sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheepfold may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.
Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.
Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.
For two years, my sheepfold was the virtual world created in the computer game World of Warcraft. I lived there more than I did in the real world. I played every day. Often I ate all three meals in front of my computer. But during those stagnant months that stretched into years, I didn’t live. I existed. I simply settled myself in my sheepfold. My mind numbed. My heart hibernated. My spirit deflated. But I didn’t notice because I was safe and I was comfortable. Then the flu hit, and I was too weak to resist the pulling and yanking that God had been doing for who knows how long. God drove me out of my sheepfold. And my life began anew.
This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered – not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens – fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.
And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds – whatever they may be – we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.
We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.